Parents of School Shooters Rarely Are Held Responsible. A Michigan Prosecutor Wants to Change That

Rhonda Hart, a junior high school student in Wasilla (Alaska) was killed in 1999 in Columbine High School’s mass shooting. Twelve students were injured and one teacher died. Hart hoped that the Colorado shooting would not be repeated in her lifetime.

Nearly 20 years later, Vaughan’s own daughter was killed in school shooting. Kimberly Vaughan was 14 years old and was participating in her freshman art class at Santa Fe High School, Texas. On May 18, 2018, a student of 17 opened fire killing 10 students with weapons that belonged his father.
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“You never think it’s going to happen until it does,” Hart says.

<strong>“We wouldn’t have school shootings if children couldn’t access guns.”</strong>Hart also blamed Hart’s parents for the capital murder of the accused shooter. Prosecutors did not pursue charges against the gunman’s mother and father, so Hart sued them instead. The lawsuit, which is still ongoing, charges that they knew their son was at risk of harming himself and others but failed to do “even the bare minimum” to make sure he could not get hold of his father’s firearms.

Hart believed she was able to find justice in the United States, where school shooting victims’ parents are seldom held accountable. “It’s pretty miserable,” she says. “I wish we had a lot more choices to pursue.”

The tide turned on Dec. 3 when a Oakland County prosecutor, Mich., announced that she would be charging James Crumbley and Jennifer Crumbley for involuntary Manslaughter. This was after Ethan Crumbley (15 years old) shot and killed four Oxford High School classmates.

Oakland County prosecuting attorney Karen McDonald said at a news conference that the teen’s parents could have stopped the mass shooting but failed to act on multiple warning signs. According to the prosecution, Ethan Crumbley was caught by a teacher looking for ammunition using his smartphone in class one day prior to the shooting. The school alerted his mother, who later texted her son that she wasn’t mad at him and that he had to “learn not to get caught.”

Scott Olson—Getty ImagesKaren McDonald, Oakland County Prosecutor, announces the filing of criminal charges against James Crumbley and Jennifer Crumbley. They are parents to alleged school shooter Ethan Crumbley.

On the morning of the shooting, a teacher found a drawing by Ethan Crumbley that alarmed her because it depicted a handgun and phrases that included “the thoughts won’t stop,” “help me” and “blood everywhere.” The teen’s parents were summoned to the school by administrators who said Ethan needed immediate counseling. However, the Crumbleys kept their son safe at school. And they didn’t inspect his backpack, which may have held the handgun his father purchased for Ethan as a Christmas gift days before, authorities said.

School officials stated that the gunfire started later that day as students were making their way through the hall from one class to another. McDonald said the handgun was stored unlocked in a drawer in James and Jennifer Crumbley’s bedroom. “They had every reason to know he was dangerous,” McDonald said, “and they gave him a weapon and they didn’t secure it. And they allowed him free access to it.”

Many parents notice similarities between other tragedies and their children’s lives.

Hart was among other parents who had lost their children in school shootings to gun violence. Hart said that the Oxford case made them think back to their own tragedy. “Some of the similarities here are why I’m getting so angry,” says Nicole Hockley, whose 6-year-old son Dylan was killed in the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. “Have we not learned our lesson yet?”

Sandy Hook’s gunman shot his mother and drove to school where he killed 20 children and their teachers. But had the gunman’s mother survived, many people, including Hockley, feel she might have been found culpable in the massacre for ignoring warning signs that her son was disturbed. “Whenever I hear about preventable and senseless school shootings or deaths by firearms,” Hockley says, “it just takes my breath away for a minute.”

The Michigan prosecutor’s announcement of charges brought new hope to parents like Hockley and Hart, as school shootings have grown to become an American norm. Everytown for Gun Safety uses media reports to monitor incidents. In 2021 there was at least 149 instances of gunfire on school premises, resulting in 32 deaths and 94 injuries. In 2019, there were 96 incidents, compared to 130 in 2019. This massacre at Oxford was the most violent school shooting since Santa Fe.

Learn more Families of Mass Shooting Victims Go Through the Grief

“It really should be a wake-up call for all gun owners,” Moms Demand Action founder Shannon Watts says of the charges in Michigan. “We wouldn’t have school shootings if children couldn’t access guns.”

Senior counsel to the Giffords Law Center, Allison Anderman says that between 70% and 90% of firearms used in suicides or unintentional shootings with children, and school shootings committed under 18, are purchased from the house or homes of family members or friends. While it’s unclear how often gun owners are prosecuted for allowing their firearms to be used in shootings, experts say it’s far from common.

Why it’s so rare to hold parents responsible

Many reasons could be the reason. Watts notes that 23 states do not have any form of secure-storage laws. According to Chris Mattei (an attorney who was a former Connecticut prosecutor), it is possible for parents of school shooting victims not to be charged by their state’s attorneys because they may feel they are under a greater burden of proof.

In school shootings that end with the shooter dying by suicide, or even when a child dies at home after accessing a gun, Mattei and other experts say there’s a national tendency among authorities to feel sympathy for the parents. “People say the same thing,” Watts says. “Oh, you know, this is such a horrible tragedy. We can’t punish them. They’ve suffered enough.” Watts says that sentiment is particularly widespread in states with lax gun laws.

Learn more Mass Shootings: ‘This Is What Normal Has Come to be Like in America’

Michigan has no laws regarding secure storage. Prosecutors in Michigan say that they were able to show enough negligence evidence without using a firearm statute. “I am in no way saying that an active shooter situation should always result in a criminal prosecution against parents,” McDonald said, “but the facts of this case are so egregious.”

James Crumbley and Jennifer Crumbley each pleaded guilty and their bond was set individually at $500,000. The defense lawyers claimed that the gun had been locked during video arraignment and that further information would be made.

James Crumbley and Jennifer Crumbley could be an exception to the rule?

But Mattei believes a conviction is likely if the case goes to trial and the parents don’t plead guilty beforehand, especially since the involuntary manslaughter charges they face do not harp on the firearm used in the attack. Mattei explains that the only requirement for prosecution is to show gross negligence that results in death. That means they must have probable cause to believe that their parents were able to cause grievous bodily harm.

Advocates say there’s no better time to find alternate ways to stop school shootings. Besides a rise in gun violence, K-12 public schools nationwide have seen a significant spike in “hostile behaviors,” with the number of physical attacks with a weapon nearly doubling from 2015 to 2018, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.

James and Jennifer Crumbley
Oakland County Sheriff’s office via APJames Crumbley and Jennifer Crumbley are the parents of Ethan Crumbley (an Oxford school shooting suspect).

“For all of us who want to see a less-violent society,” Mattei says, “it should give us all hope.”

Hart and Hockley, mother to three children, are hopeful for the best. On December 14, 2009, nine years have passed since Sandy Hook’s shooting. That means Hockley’s son Dylan has been dead more years than he was alive, his mother says. In the months after her son was killed, Hockley says, out of routine, she still called Dylan to dinner, still looked in her car’s rear view mirror to see his face in the car seat and still reached for his hand when she crossed the street. She still wakes up some mornings and can’t believe her son is gone. She daydreams about how tall he’d be, what hobbies he’d be into as a high school sophomore. “All I can do is imagine what he would be like right now,” Hockley says.

Hart hopes the charges in Michigan will start a trend that will hold more parents accountable, so others don’t have to feel her pain.

“We’re literally dying over here waiting for this to happen,” she says.


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