It wasn’t long before the term “precedent-setting” became synonymous with the case.
Three days after student Ethan Crumbley allegedly carried out the worst school shooting in America since 2018, Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald broke new legal ground by charging his parents with four counts of involuntary manslaughter.
This was a highly unusual step for the parents of an accused school shooter to face charges but the prosecutor vowed that the Crumbleys must be held “accountable” for the mass shooting on 30 November which left four students dead.
As soon as those charges were announced, talk then quickly turned to who could be next to be held criminally responsible.
The individuals to fall most under the spotlight have been the leaders of Oxford Community Schools district and the teachers and counsellors at Oxford High School.
While 15-year-old Ethan is accused of pulling the trigger, in the two weeks since the attack questions have been mounting about the school’s handling of his “troubling” behaviour and whether the deadly massacre could have been avoided had officials acted differently.
Several red flags appear to have been missed by school staff in the days before the shooting.
On 29 November Ethan was caught by a school staff member searching for ammunition online during class.
Then, the next day, a teacher found a disturbing drawing appearing to show a shooting victim and the words “thoughts won’t stop, help me”.
Yet, counsellors appeared to be satisfied with his claims that the chillingly prophetic scrawls were merely the teenager’s designs for a video game and neither his bag nor locker were searched. Instead, he was able to return to his lessons before allegedly opening fire on his fellow students that afternoon.
But, on Friday, the most explosive accusation to date was levelled against the school when a court filing went beyond claims of negligence to claims of destroying evidence in the wake of the attack.
Attorneys for two sisters who survived the mass shooting accused the school district of deleting social media accounts and scrubbing the school website of administrators while the investigation is under way.
“Not only did defendants fail to take necessary steps to preserve the evidence, but they willfully destructed the evidence by deleting the webpages and social media accounts,” attorney Nora Hanna wrote in Friday’s filing, seen by the Detroit Free Press.
“Plaintiffs cannot continue to be blindsided by the defendants by having to search for what evidence is being destroyed or altered.”
A judge has since ordered the school to keep all evidence related to the case.
Timothy Mullins, an attorney for the school district, branded the allegations “a lie” and “disgusting” and said that officials have fully cooperated with investigators from the get-go.
“People think that the school district is withholding information? Everything that we have has been given to the prosecutor ... everything they want we’ve given to them.”
The siblings bringing the suit, one of whom was shot in the neck in the attack, are the first to seek to hold the school district civilly responsible for failing to protect students from what they describe as the “deranged” and “homicidal” suspect.
They are seeking $100m in damages in a lawsuit which could be just the beginning of the district’s legal woes, with other survivors and victims’ families likely to follow in their footsteps.
Prosecutor Karen McDonald has also said she has not ruled out bringing criminal charges against school officials.
“Any individual who had the opportunity to stop this tragedy should have done so. The question is what did they know and when did they know it,” she said in a press briefing.
With warning signs missed and evidence allegedly deleted, all eyes are now on the school and whether any school staff will be held responsible.
But to what extent should the school be blamed for the massacre?
Predicting when a child’s concerning behaviour will escalate into violence is easier said than done, according to experts.
Linda Teplin, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, tells The Independent that many children exhibit “risk factors” but very few will go on to become mass shooters.
“Often we say after that people should have known, that the school should have known because the child exhibited a risk factor,” she says.
“But, so many children exhibit risk factors. For example being bullied is a risk factor but that is a very common experience for children.
“Yet only a fraction of children who exhibit those risk factors actually go on to carry out firearm violence so predicting these situations isn’t perfect.”
Instead, she says one of the key differences in this case is that the suspected gunman had access to a firearm.
Prosecutors said Ethan’s parents James and Jennifer Crumbley bought him the gun on Black Friday as an early Christmas present.
Oxford Community Schools Superintendent Tim Thorne said in a letter to parents last week that the Crumbleys did not inform school officials that their son had access to a gun when they were called in on the morning of the shooting.
“It’s about ensuring there is no access [to guns] so that kids can’t carry out their fantasies,” says Ms Teplin.
That said, she says the behaviours exhibited by Ethan before the mass shooting went as far as to be “specific threats”.
“In this case, it was not a general risk factor such as a child feeling angry. These were very specific things - the drawing and the looking for ammunition - so it does not seem appropriate that he was sent back to class,” she says.
“But if you ask kids if they have ever made a violent drawing when they’ve been angry, you’ll probably get a lot saying yes.
“The real issue here is about firearm safety and without his parents giving him access to a gun this wouldn’t have happened.”
Ms Teplin says, in this case, it comes back to a combination of “risk factors” and “access” so it is wrong to push the blame onto the school.
Following mounting criticism, Superintendent Thorne announced last week that the district was launching a third-party investigation into its handling of the events leading up to the massacre.
The organisation carrying out the probe is not clear after the district turned down an offer from Michigan District Attorney Dana Nessel for her office to lead it.
DA Nessel hit out at the district, saying she was “extremely disappointed” by its decision.
Mr Thorne also provided details about the school’s version of events leading up to the shooting, revealing that Ethan had claimed his chilling drawing was for a video game he was designing.
He also pushed the blame onto the Crumbleys who he said “refused” to take their son out of school when asked to do so by school counsellors that morning.
The decision was then made to allow the teenager to stay in his lessons rather than send him home to an empty house, he said.
However, questions remain around why officials failed to search the suspect’s backpack or locker.
Prosecutors have said the firearm was already in school with Ethan that morning and that the school had the right to carry out a search in light of his disturbing behaviour.
Now, as part of the first lawsuit which names several school officials, attorneys are asking for the employment records of counsellors, teachers and other school staff as well as their training materials.
With the alleged gunman and his parents now behind bars, it remains to be seen whether any school officials will also be held responsible and if yet another precedent will be set in the case.
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