The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Many parents of school shooters ignore glaring warning signs. This grandmother didn’t.

When Catherine O’Connor discovered her grandson was planning an attack, she did what few parents or guardians do: reported a child she loved to police

James Crumbley and Jennifer Crumbley, the parents of accused Oxford High school shooter Ethan Crumbley, have pleaded not guilty to involuntary manslaughter charges. (Oakland County Sheriff's Office /AP)

She had seen her grandson’s red, spiral-bound notebook before that night, but now, as Catherine O’Connor sifted through its pages for the first time, what she read astonished her.

“School Shootings,” Joshua O’Connor had titled the first page, above a reconstruction of the Columbine High School massacre that left 13 people dead. In the pages that followed, Joshua, who’d just turned 18, described a detailed plan to carry out his own massacre: the shotguns, pistols, assault rifle and ammunition he would buy and the bombs he would build; the doors he would zip-tie “so bitches can’t escape”; the spot by the bleachers where he would set off the first explosion; the route he would take on his killing spree; the moment, when it was over, that he would end his own life.

“I Need to make this shooting/ bombing... infamous,” he wrote in early 2018. “I Need to get the biggest fatality number I possibly can.”

Catherine O’Connor, a retired probation officer who was Joshua’s guardian, showed the journal to her husband, who was equally disturbed. The next day, after O’Connor dropped her grandson off at school, she searched his room and found a semiautomatic rifle in a guitar case. Then she did what many parents of school shooters never do: called the police to report that a child she loved posed a threat to his classmates, his community and himself.

Last week’s shooting at Oxford High School in Michigan, which left four students dead and seven other people wounded, has focused unprecedented attention on the responsibility parents bear when their children fire shots on campuses.

For decades, mothers and fathers have overlooked clear warning signs that their teens were capable of violence, but adults are almost never held accountable when their negligence leads to bloodshed. That’s what makes Jennifer and James Crumbley, the parents of the 15-year-old charged with the shooting, so unusual. They each face four counts of involuntary manslaughter, almost certainly the most serious charges ever brought against an alleged school shooter’s mother or father.

Since 1999, children have committed at least 175 school shootings, according to a new Washington Post analysis. Among the 114 cases in which the weapon’s source was identified by police, 77 percent were taken from the child’s home or those of relatives or friends. And yet, The Post discovered just five instances when the adult owners of the weapons were criminally punished because they failed to lock them up. Another three cases in which adults were charged, including the one against the Crumbleys, are pending.

More than 278,000 students have experienced gun violence at school since Columbine

Prosecutor Karen McDonald charged the parents of high school shooting suspect Ethan Crumbley with involuntary manslaughter on Dec. 3. (Video: The Washington Post)

In Michigan, Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald has argued that the facts justify the felony charges against the couple, alleging “unconscionable” negligence.

Four days before the shooting, McDonald said, James Crumbley bought a 9mm Sig Sauer, which their son, Ethan, later posted a photo of on Instagram, writing, “Just got my new beauty today.” Three days before the shooting, Jennifer Crumbley posted that she and Ethan were at the gun range “testing out his new Christmas present.”

One day before the shooting, a teacher caught Ethan searching online for ammunition, but when the school alerted his mother, authorities say she instead texted her son: “Lol. I’m not mad at you. You have to learn not to get caught.”

On the day of the shooting, McDonald said, a teacher found a note on which Ethan drew a person shot dead, along with “blood everywhere” and “The thoughts won’t stop. Help me.” When his parents were summoned to the school, the prosecutor noted, they refused to take him home — nor did they search his backpack for the gun. Less than three hours later, his rampage began.

The Crumbleys have pleaded not guilty, and their attorney denied the prosecutor’s allegation that the 9mm was kept in an unlocked drawer, saying “that gun was actually locked.”

School administrators also deny they did anything wrong, but the parents of two sisters who survived the shooting filed a pair of lawsuits, in federal court Thursday, accusing the district of negligence, too.

Regardless of who’s at fault, research shows that such deadly outcomes are not inevitable. In a report issued earlier this year, the Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center reviewed 67 “disrupted plots” targeting schools between 2006 and 2018. Every time, the report said, “tragedy was averted” when others came forward after seeing alarming behavior. In most cases, friends, classmates or other peers spoke up, but in eight instances — or about 1 in 9 — a parent or grandparent noticed and reported something, sometimes after going through a relative’s bedroom or, as O’Connor did, reading a journal.

She discovered that Joshua had scheduled the attack for April 19 — the day before Columbine’s anniversary. She found the list of his self-diagnosed mental illnesses and the pages with the will that he’d written, explaining what was to be done with his ashes. In the journal’s seventh entry, she read this: “So today I just bought a Hi-Point 9mm Carbine rifle. ... I can’t wait for April, it will be a blast.”

She never feared her grandson, but Joshua’s horrifying plot made clear that he needed help she and her husband couldn’t give him.

“What’s the right next step?” she recalled thinking before alerting authorities. “I don’t know what other choice there was.”

Because she made that choice, her grandson never fired a shot or took a life. Police arrived soon after her 911 call and searched Joshua’s room, where they found a collection of bomb parts and confiscated his rifle and notebook. Within hours, he was taken into custody.

The day after his arrest, on Feb. 14, 2018, O’Connor watched what happened when another attacker wasn’t stopped.

Just past 2 p.m., 3,300 miles away in Parkland, Fla., another angry teenager who had threatened to shoot up a campus did just that, killing 17 people during the deadliest high school shooting in American history.

‘Not impulsive acts’

Four decades before the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas and two decades before the shooting at Columbine, a teenager named Brenda Spencer opened fire on a San Diego elementary school on Jan. 29, 1979, killing two adults and wounding eight children and a police officer.

Spencer was 16, and her father, Wallace, had given her the .22-caliber rifle a month earlier. It was, just like Ethan Crumbley’s handgun, a Christmas gift.

Prosecutors never charged the man with a crime.

His potential culpability garnered little attention in the press at a time when school shootings were considered disturbing anomalies rather than a national crisis that demanded intensive training, expensive technology and armed officers to deter.

‘Scared to death’: More than 4 million children endured lockdowns in the 2017-18 school year

Not much had changed by 1998, when Kip Kinkel shot 27 people, killing two, at Thurston High in Oregon. He used three guns from home, including a Glock his dad had bought for the firearm-obsessed 15-year-old as a way to strengthen their relationship.

Kinkel had access to the weapons despite being an angry, violent, depressed and deeply delusional ninth-grader who had twice been suspended for attacking other students and, another time, was caught by police trying to buy a stolen firearm. Whether prosecutors would have charged his parents for their negligence is impossible to know; Kinkel killed them both the day before the school shooting.

Much of the country would not awaken to the threat of school shootings until the next year, when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 13 people and wounded more than 20 others at Columbine.

The man keeping Columbine safe

Klebold’s mother, Sue, has talked about her experience perhaps more than any other shooter’s parent, even writing a book about her son, the attack and its aftermath.

“Dylan did not learn violence in our home. He did not learn disconnection, or rage, or racism. He did not learn a callous indifference to human life,” she argued in “A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy.” “Dylan showed no clear and present danger, the way some children do.”

Harris’s parents, who have never given an interview, could not make the same claims, according to Peter Langman, a psychologist and the author of “Warning Signs: Identifying School Shooters Before They Strike.”

“Eric Harris’s parents knew he had anger management problems — they said he punched a wall about every four weeks — knew he had been suspended for hacking into the school’s computer system and stealing everyone’s locker combination, knew he had been arrested for breaking into an electrician’s van and stealing equipment, and also knew that he had built at least one pipe bomb,” Langman said. “They also knew he drank and smoked pot. This, of course, does not predict mass murder, but should have warranted at least conducting room searches to see what else might be going on.”

Mass shooters, experts have found, seldom kill without warning.

“These are definitely not impulsive acts,” said Matt Doherty, who used to run the Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center. “They are planned in advance, and that planning can occur over days, weeks or months or years.”

In 2017, parents in Maryland discovered such a plan in their 18-year-old daughter’s journal, where she laid out a “Columbine-type attack” on her high school, said Frederick County Sheriff Charles A. Jenkins.

The teen’s father also found materials for explosive devices, shotgun shells and a shotgun she had purchased, Jenkins said. The parents contacted school officials, who called the sheriff’s office. She later pleaded guilty to possessing explosive material.

“I wonder how parents cannot see signs that are developing in a home and in a family situation,” Jenkins said. “There are always signs somewhere.”

Few school shooters offered more warning signs than Nikolas Cruz, the Parkland gunman who pleaded guilty to the murders.

On the first day that the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission gathered, one of their investigators presented a slide breaking down nearly 50 instances of threatening behavior that people knew about but didn’t report or that authorities knew about and didn’t act on. Instances in which Cruz tortured or killed an animal: seven. Times he was seen with a bullet, knife or firearm: 19. Declarations of hatred he made toward a group or person: eight. References he made about wanting to hurt or kill someone: 11. Threats that he would shoot up a school: three.

His brother gunned down 17 people. But he’s the only family Zach Cruz has left.

The commission’s chair, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, called Cruz’s mother, Lynda, an “enabler.” She died a few months prior to the Parkland shooting.

“There’s no question about it,” he said in an interview, noting that she had taken her son to get a state ID card when he was 18 so he could buy a gun, despite knowing he was violent. Investigators learned that Cruz had once knocked out three of her teeth and, at least once, pointed a gun at her.

“There is no way she should not have known” what her son was capable of, Gualtieri said. “There is no way a reasonable, prudent person wouldn’t have recognized and identified it.”

'A wake-up call’

Twenty-one years ago, in a town just 40 miles from Oxford, Mich., a first-grader found a handgun in a shoe box, took it to school and used it to kill a 6-year-old classmate. The 19-year-old man who owned the weapon later pleaded no contest to involuntary manslaughter and served 29 months behind bars.

No gun owners since have faced a harsher penalty for allowing their firearms to fall into the hands of a child school shooter.

Why is it rare for parents of school shooting suspects to face charges?

Politics are often blamed for the lack of accountability. Three years ago, Commonwealth’s Attorney Mark Blankenship wanted to charge the stepfather of a 15-year-old boy who had used the man’s gun to kill two people and wound 14 more at Marshall County High, in a deeply conservative part of Kentucky.

A teen calmly shot 16 classmates, police say. Is his stepfather also to blame?

But, just as in Michigan, state lawmakers in Kentucky had never passed a regulation mandating that adults prevent children from gaining access to their firearms, limiting Blankenship’s options. He lost reelection, blaming the failure, in part, on his comments about going after the stepfather.

Safety advocates now wonder whether the Crumbley case represents a broader shift in the way that the country assigns responsibility after school shootings. But its long-term impact may depend on the outcome. If the couple are convicted, will more prosecutors feel emboldened to go after negligent gun owners and, specifically, parents? If they’re exonerated, will the case have the opposite effect?

Regardless, some experts say, the charges could make a meaningful difference right away.

“My hope is that this will be a wake-up call for gun owners who are not safely storing their firearms,” said Allison Anderman, senior counsel at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “There are millions of teens and children who live in homes with unsecured guns.”

In fact, if the only change America had made after Columbine was to prevent children from obtaining firearms, hundreds of kids who accidentally shot themselves or each other would not have died or been maimed or suffered through the guilt of their mistake, at least 10,000 children might not have ended their own lives in suicide and more than half of the country’s school shootings wouldn’t have happened.

In 2018 Joshua O’Connor, who was 18, plotted a mass shooting at his Everett, Wash., high school. His grandmother discovered his plan and turned him into police. (Video: KIRO 7)

For Catherine O’Connor, the woman who reported her grandson to police in Washington state, doing the right thing came at a devastating cost. She pleaded with the court to show Joshua mercy, but he still received a 22-year prison term.

At a hearing, the judge called her a hero. O’Connor hated that. She just wanted to help her grandson.

The case has eroded her faith in the justice system, but she agreed with the Michigan prosecutor’s decision to charge the Crumbleys. O’Connor couldn’t comprehend why they hadn’t searched their son’s backpack during that meeting at the school.

“That’s so irresponsible, beyond belief,” she said. “That just outrages me.”

O’Connor said she had long been wary of allowing her grandson to go near unsecured firearms. She and her husband owned guns but said they were always hidden and equipped with trigger locks.

Of course, she could do nothing to stop Joshua from buying the semiautomatic rifle when he turned 18. But even her grandson came to a realization about America’s gun culture.

“Grandma,” he said the first time she saw him after this arrest, “guns are too easy to get.”

Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

Read more:

Inside an accused school shooter’s mind: A plot to kill ‘50 or 60. If I get lucky maybe 150.’

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