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After Michigan school shooting, experts question what could have prevented it

The American flag flies at half-staff at Oxford High School in Michigan on Thursday. (Jake May/The Flint Journal/AP)

The day after sophomore Ethan Crumbley was seen searching online for ammunition, a teacher found a disturbing drawing of a bloody figure in his desk.

“The thoughts won’t stop,” read the note, which included a drawing of a gun, a bullet and a bleeding victim. “Help me.”

Concerned school administrators called in Crumbley’s parents for a meeting and ordered the parents to find counseling for their son within 48 hours. But no one from the school searched the 15-year-old’s backpack, where a semiautomatic handgun was stashed at one point, officials say. Hours later, they say, Crumbley pulled the gun from the bag and turned it on his fellow classmates in Oxford, Mich., killing four.

Now, even as the community grieves, questions are emerging about what administrators knew immediately before the shooting and whether the school shares responsibility for the tragic events. Among the unknowns: Could the district be considered liable in criminal or civil court?

Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald (D) said she has not ruled out prosecuting school officials.

“The investigation is ongoing,” she said at a news conference Friday.

“Any individual who had the opportunity to stop this tragedy should have done so,” she added. “The question is what did they know and when did they know it.”

Oxford Community Schools Superintendent Tim Throne has acknowledged that school officials met with the Crumbleys but said the shooting suspect had no disciplinary history. “No discipline was warranted,” Throne said in a video message Thursday night.

On Saturday, Throne sent district parents a new statement with more details about how they handled the situation, and promised an independent investigation. Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said Sunday on Twitter that her office has reached out to offer help in conducting a “full and comprehensive” review of the shooting and events leading up to it.

The new district statement said that after discovering the Internet search for ammunition, a counselor and another staff member met with Crumbley, who said that he and his mother recently went to a shooting range and that shooting sports are a family hobby. The next day, his parents confirmed that account, Throne said.

After the drawing was found, the superintendent said, Crumbley was immediately removed from the classroom and taken to a guidance counselor’s office, where he said the art was “part of a video game he was designing.” The parents were told that if they did not seek counseling for Crumbley within 48 hours, the school would notify Children’s Protective Services.

The district blamed the shooting suspect and his parents for giving answers that led counselors to “conclude he did not intend on committing either self-harm or harm to others,” the superintendent wrote. After school officials asked the parents to take their son home for the day, the Crumbleys refused and left, the district said, and the principal or assistant principal were not notified.

“While we understand this decision has caused anger, confusion and prompted understandable questioning, 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.

Determining whether a student’s behavior constitutes a threat is enormously challenging for school officials. Some experts said they could not blame Oxford school officials for not predicting the violence they would face.

Others, though, said that warning signs were clear and that officials should have checked the student’s backpack for weapons or barred him from the building based on his drawings alone.

David Rourke, director of training for QBS, a company that offers consulting for school districts on how to prevent violence and handle behavioral problems, said it would have made sense to at least search the student’s backpack before letting him return to class, although he added that not all facts of the case are public. “It certainly sounds as if there were very, very serious warning signs that should have been taken much more seriously,” Rourke said.

“Hindsight is 20-20,” he said. “I’m sure everyone involved in this is deeply wishing they had made different decisions in this situation.”

Frederic G. Reamer, a social work professor at Rhode Island College, said he had “serious questions” about the school’s actions given the disclosed details about Crumbley’s behavior. “These are not little red flags. These are big red flags,” he said. “On the surface, this strikes me as a very questionable decision.”

“There is a very significant likelihood there will be litigation here asserting negligence on the part of school staff,” he predicted. He added that if the situation was serious enough to threaten a report to Children’s Protective Services, it should have been treated more seriously.

A lawsuit accusing the school of negligence after a fatal rampage would not be the first. This year, families and victims of the Parkland shooting sued the Broward County, Fla., school district in a total of 53 lawsuits, and 52 of them were resolved in a $25 million settlement. In 2018, a Connecticut judge dismissed a case filed by parents of two Sandy Hook victims against the school district.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) and others gathered at a Dec. 3 vigil in Oxford, Mich., for those killed and injured in a Nov. 30 shooting. (Video: The Washington Post)

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Who could be subject to a lawsuit will depend on what is covered by the state’s laws related to immunity for governmental agencies, like a public school, said David Brill, a Florida lawyer who represented four of the Parkland families and an injured student.

Under Michigan law, such institutions are immune from civil liability if engaged in a governmental function. Individual government employees, such as the guidance counselors, would not be immune if their conduct amounted to gross negligence.

Brill — referring to the decision to let Ethan return to class without searching his backpack, reviewing his social media posts or further questioning his excuse about designing a video game — said school staff should be vigilant in the face of threats, especially after more than two decades of school shootings.

“It’s extraordinary to me, it’s just utterly baffling, that knowing what we know about just how horribly commonplace school shootings are, that our schoolchildren are being killed at a faster rate than our military personnel are being killed abroad, that guidance counselors in this case could be that incredibly presumptuous that this kid doesn’t pose a threat,” Brill said. “How can you not take every precaution to mitigate this?”

Several observers agreed that the suburban Detroit high school was, at least initially, on top of the warnings last week. A teacher flagged the drawing, and the school brought the parents in to discuss it. The challenge for administrators is properly identifying the one student who might act violently amid far more who display warning signs but never do any harm.

Standard procedure in such situations calls for a fast assessment and fact finding, often including district psychologists. But the path forward after that is not always clear, said Ronn Nozoe, chief executive of the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

“It’s hard to tell if they need someone to talk to or they are ready to carry out horrific acts,” he said. “It’s easy to armchair quarterback that. In the fog of the moment, it’s much harder to untangle it.”

“Things can go from bad to horrific quick. You just don’t know. There’s no way to tell,” Nozoe said.

These decisions may have been complicated by the difficult moment schools are facing. Across the country, the coronavirus pandemic and extended time away from school has led to a surge in behavior problems and violence in schools, including a huge spike in gun incidents.

The guideline, Nozoe said, used to be that 85 percent of the student body will generally follow the rules with normal classroom supports. Today, he said, that figure is far lower, meaning administrators have many more students who have significant academic loss, trauma and misbehavior.

Some say officials should have searched the student’s possessions. Under Supreme Court precedent, school officials need to have “reasonable suspicion” of criminal activity to search a student’s possessions — a lower standard than “probable cause,” which law enforcement typically faces.

Andy McGill, principal of West Liberty-Salem Middle School in Ohio, said he would have checked the backpack of a student if he were in the same situation, but that’s at least partly because he’s lived through a terrifying incident. In 2017, a student at his school holding a loaded shotgun was stopped in a bathroom at West Liberty-Salem. A student was shot and injured, but nobody was killed.

“For me personally, I would have gone through a lot of his stuff just to make sure,” he said. “But I’ve walked in those shoes already. For me, I’m already in a position where I’d want to be safe than sorry.”

He said he would not criticize Oxford officials, noting that there may be facts or reasoning he is unaware of. McGill is part of the Principal Recovery Network, a project of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, which helps support education leaders who face these tragedies.

Trained psychologists are no better than chance at predicting which of their patients will commit a violent act, said Jonathan Metzl, director of the Department of Medicine, Health and Society at Vanderbilt University.

“Where do you draw the line?” Metzl asked. “It’s easy in retrospect, but at the time there are so many kids who voice threats, or despair or all kinds of flashing-red warning signs. Where do you draw the line?”

“I’m not ready to blame the school in this case without knowing more,” he said. He added that Oxford officials faced a particularly challenging situation because the parents were not cooperative and did not tell them that their son had access to a gun.

The parents were charged Friday with four counts each of involuntary manslaughter. Prosecutors say they were culpable for the shooting because they ignored signs of imminent violence, allowed their son to access a firearm and did not warn the school.

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The Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals tells its members that they may face pressure to search student possessions and coaches them on how to navigate the legal standard for a search.

“As weapons and drugs have become more prevalent on school campuses, there is greater pressure for school officials to conduct student searches to ensure campus safety,” the guidance says. It says the Constitution’s protections against “unreasonable searches and seizures” extends to students, and it explains why the standard for them is different from other situations.

“Schools do not need a warrant or even ‘probable cause’ before searching a student. Instead, the standard for student searches is `reasonable suspicion,’ ” it says. “When searching a student’s person or belongings, `reasonable suspicion’ exists when a school official has objective, articulable grounds to suspect that the search will provide evidence that the student is violating the law or a school rule.”

Reamer said he was impressed that the teachers and school officials reacted swiftly to the red flags they saw, including the Internet search for ammunition and the drawing that morning, even as he predicts civil litigation against them.

“I give the school credit. I do not want to throw them under the bus,” he said. “From what I know, from a distance, they took this seriously, they tried to handle this responsibly. They tried to thread the needle balancing the competing interests of the various parties involved here.”

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