Written By: Peyton Pope
Change Could Be Coming
In the United States of America, all children have the right to an education. They will learn how to add, divide, and multiply. They will practice grammar and spelling, and inevitably, they will learn to lock the door, turn off the lights, and stay quiet when the intruder alarm sounds. The dark history of school shootings is embedded in the reality of American education, but change could be on the horizon.
On November 30, 2021, just like any other day, fifteen-year-old Ethan Crumbley walked the halls of his Michigan high school; however, this day was different because instead of carrying his typical school supplies, Ethan toted a semiautomatic 9-millimeter Sig Sauer handgun. Tragically, Ethan killed four of his classmates that day. While the violence of school shootings is sadly all too familiar for many Americans , the consequences of Ethan’s violence reach farther than any other school shooting. For the first time in America, the parents of a school shooter are being criminally charged for the actions of their child. Ethan’s parents currently face four charges of involuntary manslaughter, but to fully understand the magnitude of these charges, we need to go back to the days leading up to the shooting.
On November 26, 2021, James Crumbley, Ethan’s father, bought the handgun his son used in the school shooting. Later that day, Ethan posted a photo of the gun to his Instagram account with the caption, “Just got my new beauty today. SIG SAUER 9mm (with a heart eyes emoji).” That same weekend, Jennifer Crumbley, Ethan’s mother, posted to social media that she and Ethan had a “mom and son day testing out his new Christmas present.”
On November 29, 2021, the first day back to school after Thanksgiving break, classes resumed as normal at Michigan’s Oxford High School. However, one of Ethan’s teachers noticed him searching the web for ammunition, so she notified school officials. The school contacted Ethan’s parents by phone and email, but they did not respond. While Ethan’s parents did not respond to the school’s attempts to contact them, Jennifer did tell her son over text, “LOL I’m not mad at you. You have to learn not to get caught.” Later that night, Ethan recorded two videos of himself talking about killing and shooting students at the high school.
The very next morning, on November 30, 2021, another teacher found a disturbing drawing on Ethan’s desk. He had illustrated a handgun pointed at the words “thoughts won’t stop help me” and bullets with the words “blood everywhere.” Ethan’s drawing also included words like “my life is useless” and “the world is dead.” Most jarring was an illustration of a person who appeared to have been shot twice with a laughing emoji next to it. School officials met with Ethan’s parents that day and instructed them to provide counseling for their son within 48 hours. His parents refused to take him out of school, though, so he returned to class.
At 12:51 pm, Ethan Crumbley entered the school’s restroom and pulled from his bookbag the very present he had received from his parents: a semiautomatic 9-millimeter Sig Sauer handgun. School cameras then show him exiting the men’s bathroom and opening fire on fellow students. At 1:22 pm, Jennifer Crumbley texted her son, “Ethan don’t do it.” At 1:37 pm, James Crumbley called 911 to report a missing gun and to inform the operator that he believed his son was the school’s active shooter.
Prosecutors charged Ethan Crumbley with four counts of first-degree murder and one count of terrorism causing death. Then, Ethan’s parents were indicted on involuntary manslaughter charges, marking the first time in American history that the parents of a school shooter have been charged as responsible for the actions of their child.
What Does It Mean?
Involuntary Manslaughter is a “catch-all” crime that is not characterized as voluntary. (People v. Holtschlag, 471 Mich. 1, 684 N.W.2d 730 (2004)). The Michigan Supreme Court defined the crime as “every unintentional killing of a human being” that “is neither murder nor voluntary manslaughter nor within the scope of some recognized justification or excuse.” Thus, involuntary manslaughter is more easily characterized in terms of what it is not.
Notably, involuntary manslaughter does not require a showing of malice. This means that a prosecutor is not burdened with proving that Ethan’s parents acted with a person-endangering state of mind with the intent to kill or inflict serious bodily injury. Rather, Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald intends to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Jennifer and James Crumbley grossly neglected their parental duties by not “averting the obvious danger their son presented.” McDonald argues that the events leading up to the school shooting show that Ethan’s parents are directly responsible for the deaths of the four teenage victims. More specifically, she argues that Ethan’s parents acted with gross negligence when they provided Ethan with a weapon, ignored the warning signs, and joked with their son about being caught.
This is the first time criminal charges have been brought against the parents of a school shooter. In February of 2022, a preliminary examination was conducted at the Oakland County courthouse to determine if there was enough evidence to proceed with the charges against the Crumbleys. McDonald relied on a Michigan case, People v. Head, where a Detroit man was criminally charged because he left a loaded gun within reach of his nine-year-old son, who died as a result. To support her case against the Crumbleys, the prosecutor offered evidence of the events leading up to the shooting, including texts between Ethan and his parents. District Court Judge Julie Nicholson decided that James and Jennifer Crumbley will stand trial for their charges. While this preliminary hearing did not determine the Crumbleys’ innocence or guilt, it did demonstrate that the State of Michigan is willing to move forward with charges against parents for the actions of their children.
With enough evidence to proceed to trial, the Oakland prosecutor now bears the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that James and Jennifer Crumbley acted with gross negligence when they allowed their son access to a handgun. Ultimately, the prosecutor must convince a jury that Ethan’s parents had the responsibility to prevent their son from harming his classmates and that they should have foreseen the danger he presented. But, what does this mean moving forward?
If a court finds Ethan’s parents guilty of involuntary manslaughter, this case will establish strong precedent in the American court system. It will mean that future school shooters’ parents could also be held criminally liable. To some, this is a long-awaited solution. For others, this is an overreach of prosecutorial discretion. Some even believe that holding parents criminally liable for the actions of their children may unintentionally provide the foundation for third-party liability in cases involving school shootings. In such a scenario, schools and their employees could face criminal liability.
As of now, the Crumbleys’ trial has been postponed from the scheduled date of October 24, 2022. Their next appearance will be on October 28, 2022 for a Daubert hearing (Daubert hearings deal with the admissibility of expert testimony during trial). While Michigan’s decision will only set an official precedent for that state, one thing is clear: something must change. Too many children have died in the halls of their schools. While there may be some disagreement about the best approach to end school shootings, the conversations must continue until a solution is found. For Oxford County, one solution is to attempt to hold parents criminally responsible for the actions of their children.