A prosecutor continues to criticize the decision to keep a teenager in a Michigan school before a shooting that killed four students last week, raising questions about whether staff and the school district will face liability — criminal or civil — in the tragedy.
"We should all be looking at the events that led up to that horrific event," Karen McDonald said. "And as a community, as a school, as a nation talk about what we could have done different so that didn’t happen. And in this case a lot could have been done different."
Ethan Crumbley, 15, is charged with shooting fellow students at Oxford High School after a meeting with counselors and his parents. A teacher was troubled by a drawing of a gun, a bullet and a person who appeared to have been shot, along with messages stating “My life is useless” and “The world is dead,” investigators said.
A look at some of the issues:
Could School Staff Face Charges?
The prosecutor has sharpened her comments about the school. Two days after the Nov. 30 shooting, she said she hadn't seen any “criminal culpability” by staff and was reluctant to blame anyone besides Crumbley and his parents.
But her tone was different Monday.
“That’s an investigative process that I’ll leave to law enforcement. I can tell you that there is outrage in the community,” said McDonald, questioning why Crumbley's parents were allowed to make the ultimate decision to keep him in school that day.
Oxford Superintendent Tim Throne said counselors met with the boy and his parents on the day of the shooting. They concluded he was not a risk to himself or others, according to Throne, but told James and Jennifer Crumbley to get him outside counseling within 48 hours or they would call child welfare officials.
The Crumbleys “flatly refused” to take their son home, said Throne, who plans a separate investigation of what happened that day.
“I see a lot of negligence, but I don't foresee charges against anyone in the school,” said David Steingold, a Detroit-area defense attorney. “You would have to show specific intent. No one on the staff intended to commit a crime."
Meanwhile, the Oakland County sheriff's office said it continues to investigate a Detroit artist, Andrzej Sikora, who was interviewed Monday. Ethan Crumbley's parents were arrested last weekend in his Detroit commercial space. They have been charged with involuntary manslaughter under a theory that their actions contributed to the school shooting.
Investigators were examining Sikora's electronic devices. His attorney, Clarence Dass, said the artist didn't know the couple was in his studio.
As for others, the gun was legally sold by a local dealer to James Crumbley, according to investigators. The gun manufacturing industry is protected from civil lawsuits for its products, according to the Giffords Law Center, which tracks gun issues.
What Is a Counselor's Role?
When faced with the drawing and writings found in Oxford, a counselor would be concerned about suicidal thoughts, not signs of a possible mass homicide, said Carolyn Stone of the University of North Florida, an expert in ethical and legal issues for school counselors.
“When you see that, you call parents, and that’s what this counselor did,” Stone said. “When we share, the parents then exercise custody and control over the child and get them help. Our job is to make sure parents know their child is in trouble.”
Crumbley's parents never told counselors about buying a gun just days earlier, the superintendent said.
“The counselors made a judgment based on their professional training and clinical experience and did not have all the facts we now know,” Throne said, referring to keeping Crumbley in school instead of sending him home to an empty house.
Could the School Face Civil Lawsuits?
The shooting left four students dead and injured six more students and a staff member. Students barricaded themselves in classrooms and even fled through a first-floor window. The prosecutor said the entire school was “terrorized.”
Personal-injury lawyers expressed doubt that the Oxford district could be successfully sued for letting Crumbley stay in school. That's because Michigan law sets a high bar to wring liability out of public schools and other arms of government.
“You have to show that the administration or faculty members were grossly negligent, meaning they had a reckless disregard for whether an injury was likely to take place,” said attorney A. Vince Colella.
Even if gross negligence can be demonstrated, someone who sues must also show it was a proximate cause of death or injury, he said.
“Because the staff didn’t hold the trigger, they can’t be held liable because of government immunity. … They knew he was distraught. Immunity is counterintuitive to public safety," Colella said.