Law & Courts

Oxford School Shooter’s Parents Were Convicted. Holding District Liable Could Be Tougher

By Mark Walsh — April 10, 2024 12 min read
Four roses are placed on a fence to honor Hana St. Juliana, 14, Madisyn Baldwin, 17, Tate Myre, 16, and Justin Shilling, 17, the four teens killed in last week's shooting, outside Oxford High School in Oxford, Mich., on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021.
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The recent criminal convictions of the parents of the student who killed four students at Oxford High School in Michigan in 2021 were groundbreaking—the first time for parents of a mass school shooter. The convictions have cast fresh light on efforts to hold a variety of other parties legally responsible for mass school shootings.

Jennifer and James Crumbley, who were convicted of manslaughter in separate trials earlier this year, were each sentenced on April 9 to 10 to 15 years in prison. Their son, Ethan Crumbley, who was a 15-year-old sophomore at the time, pulled a 9-millimeter semiautomatic handgun out of his backpack on Nov. 30, 2021, and began shooting, killing four Oxford High students and wounding seven others, including a teacher. The parents were charged because they obtained the gun for their son and failed to respond to signs of his deteriorating mental health, prosecutors have said.

At the sentencing hearing Tuesday in a Pontiac, Mich., courtroom, the father of one of the victims alluded to efforts to hold other parties responsible as well.

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“This is the low hanging fruit,” said William Myre, the father of 16-year-old Tate Myre, who was killed. “Now it’s time to turn our attention to Oxford schools, who played a role in this tragedy.”

Lawsuits seeking to hold the 5,700-student Oxford Community School District and several of its employees partially liable for the 2021 incident are well along, with courts already rejecting some claims while allowing a few to proceed.

However, holding school districts and personnel legally responsible for school shootings remains exceedingly challenging for many reasons, including government immunity from state lawsuits that protects districts and difficult hurdles to win federal constitutional claims.

“Historically, there has been fairly limited instances of liability generally arising out of school shootings,” said Charles Vergon, a lecturer in education and political science at the University of Michigan-Flint, who has studied the issue for years. “But there have been some significant examples recently.”

Notably, mass school shootings have resulted in some major legal settlements in recent years. Such settlements often do not entail admissions of liability, but they tend to come about when defendants believe they face adverse outcomes in court.

In the 2018 shooting that killed 17 students and school workers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., the FBI settled a suit over its failure to follow through on a phone tip for $127 million, while the Broward County school board settled lawsuits over its own actions for $25 million. In 2022, Remington, the maker of the rifle used by the shooter who killed 20 in the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., settled a lawsuit with victims’ families for $73 million.

The Parkland case also saw other forms of consequences, such as the suspension of four Broward school board members and the removal of the Broward County sheriff by Florida’s governor, as well as the prosecution of the Stoneman-Douglas High school resource officer accused of failing to confront the shooter, though he was acquitted last year of state charges of child neglect and culpable negligence.

“Even though we have those breakthroughs, school districts and school officials continue to escape liability in the vast majority of cases,” said Vergon, who is also an emeritus professor at Youngstown State University in Ohio.

Difficult hurdles in state and federal courts

The 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., in which two 17-year-old students killed 12 students and one teacher, is illustrative of the challenges of holding districts and school officials liable for conduct that may have contributed to the tragedy.

Later investigations revealed that a school resource officer and several teachers or counselors had warning signs of the perpetrators’ dangerous tendencies, including school video projects by the pair depicting the use of guns, violent themes in their writing assignments and website content, and statements the two made about blowing up their school in the year before the slayings.

A key argument in lawsuits brought by family members of the slain and injured victims against school defendants was based on a “state-created danger” theory of liability under the due process clause of the 14th Amendment. Such claims involve actions by the government that expose individuals to a special danger by a third party.

But while a federal court that ruled on numerous consolidated state and federal claims found that school officials had some knowledge of the risks surrounding the two perpetrators, the warning signs unfolded over more than a year and were not “proximate” to the attack.

The perpetrators’ “actions on April 20, 1999, were the predominant, if not sole, cause of plaintiffs’ injuries,” the judge said. Those lawsuits were settled while the case was on appeal, with payments from the district of just $15,000 to each family of the victims and without any significant concessions of liability from the school defendants.

In the Newtown, Conn., mass shooting, the $73 million settlement by Remington, after a series of court rulings that would have allowed the victims’ families to pierce various liability shields of the gun manufacturer, was groundbreaking. But lawsuits seeking to hold the school district liable for, among other things, failing to provide classroom doors that locked from the inside, were rejected.

In the aftermath of the 2018 mass shooting in Parkland, there were more than 100 lawsuits filed against the Broward County school district and its employees, with some alleging negligence for failing to act on troubling incidents involving the perpetrator, who was a 19-year-old former student at the high school.

Families faced a state law that capped liability at $300,000 per incident, with a state court holding that the entire mass shooting was a single incident. In 2021, as the Florida legislature considered bills that would have allowed larger claims, the Broward County school district negotiated a settlement with victims’ families for $25 million.

One of the most recent mass school shootings, the 2022 attack at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, in which an 18-year-old shooter fatally shot 19 students and two teachers, is still in the relatively early stages of litigation. Much of the focus of multiple lawsuits is on the allegedly inadequate law enforcement response, including by the school district’s own police force. The district itself is a defendant in several pending suits. One such suit that names the district and other governmental agencies seeks $27 billion in damages.

Oxford suits focus on a meeting between school officials and the parents

The Oxford, Mich., incident is a bit farther along in the litigation stages, and offers a few lessons.

Oxford High School officials had met with Ethan Crumbley and his parents the morning of the shooting to discuss a violent drawing that the student’s math teacher had discovered him creating that day. The drawing depicted a handgun, a person with two gunshot wounds bleeding from the mouth, a shell casing or bullet, and a laughing/crying emoji. (There were other recent troubling behaviors by the student known to teachers and others in the district, but the record suggests not all of those were discussed in the parent meeting.)

The dean of students and a school counselor were concerned that Crumbley might be suicidal and they advised his parents that he needed to start counseling as soon as that day. The counselor said if the parents did not begin counseling for their son, the school would report them to child protective services.

However, the officials did not insist that the parents withdraw their son from school immediately, and when they declined to do so, the school officials returned the teenager’s backpack and sent him back to class. They did not know that there was a 9 mm. handgun and ammunition in the backpack. (Much of the case holding the parents criminally responsible revolved around the Crumbleys failing to secure the gun, which James Crumbley had purchased four days before the mass shooting for his son, and their failures to recognize his troubled mental state.)

In October 2022, Ethan Crumbley pleaded guilty to all charges against him in the mass shooting. He was later sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Families of the victims filed multiple state and federal lawsuits against the Oxford school district and several of its personnel.

In March 2023, a state judge ruled that the Oxford school district and its employees had immunity and could not be sued over their alleged failures in the case.

“Because it is undisputed that the school district was a government agency engaged in the exercise or discharge of a government function at all times relevant … the school district is immune,” state Circuit Court Judge Mary Ellen Brennan wrote.

As for the dean of students, the counselor, and several other Oxford school employees named as defendants, the judge said, “no reasonable trier of fact could conclude” that any one of the individual defendants “was the one most immediate, efficient, and direct cause” of the deaths and injuries caused by the student.

Vergon, the professor who has studied school shooting litigation, said such state court lawsuits “have been unsuccessful in the vast majority of the cases except for actions against the shooter and his family, due to state common law sovereign immunity or governmental immunity statutes that shield governmental actors and entities from recovery in common tort actions.”

Ven Johnson, a Detroit lawyer who represents families of two of the slain students and some of the injured victims in the Oxford case, said they are appealing the state trial court ruling.

“We are arguing that governmental immunity is unconstitutional,” he said in an interview. “The whole point of immunity is to cover up the guilt of the guilty parties. It’s government taking care of government.”

Federal judge allows key claim in Oxford school shooting lawsuit to proceed

Johnson is also representing the same families in a separate federal lawsuit that raises different kinds of claims stemming from the shooting. In several consolidated cases, the plaintiffs have had a bit more success in federal court, at least on a few claims.

In May 2023, U.S. District Judge Mark A. Goldsmith of Detroit ruled that a key claim against the Oxford school district, the counselor, and the dean of students could proceed, and he denied qualified immunity to those two individual defendants. The surviving claim is based on the state-created danger theory of liability.

Goldsmith held that the school officials’ threat to report the Crumbley parents to state child-protection authorities in their son’s presence “pushed [Crumbley] closer to violent action.”

The plaintiffs “have plausibly alleged that [the counselor] and [the dean of students] increased the risk that a mentally unstable teenager—suspected of harboring violent thoughts—would harm others when they threatened his parents with this imminent ultimatum in that teenager’s presence,” the judge said.

The judge rejected a claim that returning Crumbley to class with his backpack was another state-created danger. He compared that fact with police officers who temporarily detain an individual who may appear to pose a risk and then let the individual go. Such situations do not usually meet all the factors to qualify as a state-created danger, the judge said.

Lawyers for the school defendants had told the judge in a brief that school officials’ responses to the information they had before them were far from the “conscience-shocking” behavior required under state-created danger claims.

“Far from conscience-shocking, the responses here are appropriate under the circumstances, even hypervigilant,” the brief said. “There were also no threats [by Crumbley] made to harm anyone, and no one was aware that [the student] had a gun.”

Aimee Gibbs, a lawyer in Ann Arbor, Mich., who has co-written papers with Vergon about school shooting litigation, said, “It’s very significant that the court said there is sufficient evidence to support the one state-created danger claim” because few such claims have ever been recognized in school shooting cases.

School defendants argue they acted responsibly

The defendants have appealed the judge’s ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, while the plaintiffs have appealed the rejection of their other theories of school liability.

In their separate brief in the appeals court, the lawyers for the school defendants argue the threat to report his parents to child protective services was unlikely to have been the spark setting off the perpetrator.

“Defendants did not commit an ‘affirmative act’ when they allegedly advised [Crumbley’s] parents they would contact CPS if they did not get their son mental health counseling, because it is well documented that [Crumbley] already planned to commit the exact harm that ultimately occurred—a school shooting—before the alleged warning,” the brief said.

The brief contends that the school officials “were concerned for the well-being of the student and sought the assistance of his parents. This is indicative of counselors acting in furtherance of their most essential role in responding to a common scenario, an apparently depressed teenager in the age of COVID.”

If the school officials can be found liable under these circumstances, “then defendants would have been better off not attempting to help at all,” the brief says.

The lawyers for the plaintiffs, in a joint brief in the 6th Circuit, said the shooting was “preventable.” They say the lower court was correct to allow the state-created danger claim based on the threat to contact state authorities to proceed, but they urge the appeals court to reinstate the claim involving the return of Crumbley’s backpack and letting him go back to class.

“A jury could find that [Crumbley] was not going to commit the school shooting until he met with defendants,” the brief says. “The attack was still a fantasy while the shooter openly expressed warning signs and pleaded for help, and [the] defendants pushed him over the tipping point to make it a reality.”

Erin Davis, senior counsel and director of litigation at Brady, a Washington-based gun control advocacy group, said lawsuits following mass shootings serve several purposes. Brady has sued the Oxford school district and a gun dealer on behalf of some victims of the high school shooting.

“The most important thing we can do is try to stop tragedies before they happen,” said Davis, adding that lawsuits help illuminate the facts and provide lessons to improve prevention.

“The high-profile nature of some of these lawsuits around the country is sending a message to that there is responsibility beyond the individual who pulls the trigger,” Davis said.

A version of this article appeared in the May 08, 2024 edition of Education Week as Oxford School Shooter’s Parents Were Convicted. Holding the District Liable Could Be Tougher

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