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Why is it rare for parents of school shooting suspects to face charges? It’s ‘really hard,’ experts say.

A Zoom arraignment for James Crumbley and Jennifer Crumbley in Oakland County, Mich., on Dec. 4, 2021. The parents of Ethan Crumbley, a teen accused of killing four students in a shooting at Oxford High School, pleaded not guilty to involuntary manslaughter charges. (AP)
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When the parents of a 15-year-old boy accused of fatally shooting four fellow students at a Michigan high school this week were charged with multiple counts of involuntary manslaughter, it was a reminder of how extraordinarily rare it is for mothers and fathers to face charges related to heinous crimes allegedly committed by their children.

Jennifer and James Crumbley each pleaded not guilty to four counts of involuntary manslaughter during a Saturday arraignment hearing, hours after police say they found them hiding in a warehouse-like Detroit building. Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald said there was a “strong” likelihood of a conviction, telling Judge Julie A. Nicholson that the parents of 15-year-old Ethan Crumbley “could have stopped” the attack.

Shannon Smith and Mariell Lehman, defense attorneys for the couple, denied McDonald’s accusation that the parents provided their son “total access” to the weapon and said they had always intended to cooperate with law enforcement. Ethan Crumbley faces multiple charges as an adult in the attack Tuesday at Oxford High School, including murder and terrorism.

The charges brought against Crumbley’s parents are not the norm when it comes to the history of school shootings in the United States.

“It’s really hard to show that parents have a disregard for human life, and that they could actually foresee their child doing this,” Eve Brensike Primus, a law professor at the University of Michigan who focuses on criminal procedure, told The Washington Post. “That’s why these charges are so rare.”

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

How unusual is it to bring charges against parents of suspected school shooters?

It’s highly unusual.

A Washington Post review of 145 school shootings committed by children in the two decades after the Columbine High massacre in 1999 found that the weapon’s source had been publicly identified in 105 cases. In total, the guns those children used were taken from their own homes or those of relatives or friends 80 percent of the time.

However, in just four instances did the adult owners of the weapons face any criminal punishment for not having locked them up — and none of those prosecutions stemmed from negligent-storage laws.

Among those cases, the harshest penalty was given to a man in Michigan who used a shoe box to store his .32-caliber semiautomatic handgun. A 6-year-old visitor found it and took the weapon to school, fatally shooting a first-grade classmate. The man was convicted and sentenced to 29 months behind bars.

“It’s very hard to hold anyone responsible for gun violence who isn’t the shooter, especially parents,” said Jonathan Metzl, a professor at Vanderbilt University who studies gun violence.

What does it take to bring charges against parents of suspected shooters?

The legal standards for parents to face charges is “so high,” Primus said, because of the challenges prosecutors face in proving gross negligence.

To prove gross negligence, prosecutors must prove that the parents of a suspected school shooter had a wanton disregard for the consequences of their actions, which reflects “a higher culpability of recklessness,” she said. In Michigan, state law defines gross negligence as “conduct so reckless as to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether an injury results.”

“A prosecutor has to show in a school shooting case like this one that the parents knew of the situation to avert injury and had the ability to avoid harm, and that their failure to do so is proven disastrous,” Primus said.

The pistol used by Ethan Crumbley, purchased by his father on Nov. 26, was stored in an unlocked drawer in the parents’ bedroom, according to authorities.

A day before the fatal shooting, a teacher noticed Ethan Crumbley using his cellphone to search for information on firearm ammunition. Jennifer Crumbley did not respond when the school contacted her via voice mail about her son’s “inappropriate” search, McDonald said. Instead, she exchanged a text message with her son that read, “LOL I’m not mad at you. You have to learn not to get caught.”

Kris Brown, president of the Brady gun control advocacy group, said prosecutors usually need clear and “pretty straightforward” evidence to consider bringing charges against parents in school shooting cases.

“This prosecutor feels like she has a straightforward case for involuntary manslaughter, and I have to agree,” Brown said.

Whether a jury would convict the parents remains unclear, Primus said.

“You need a special set of facts to convince a jury that the parents would know this would happen or had reckless disregard,” she said.

What are the laws restricting minors from having access to guns?

The shooting has torn apart the small Michigan community, located about 45 minutes outside Detroit, and reignited calls for tighter gun laws, with more states considering laws to punish parents if children fire unsecured guns.

Existing laws nationwide aimed at restricting gun access are not always enforced and the strength of the legislation varies state to state, experts told The Post.

Only 23 states and the District have some form of a secure storage law that holds gun owners accountable in keeping firearms away from minors, said Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, a group seeking to end U.S. gun violence.

While minors in Michigan are not allowed to possess guns, the state has no law requiring gun owners to keep firearms locked away from young people.

“If there were stronger gun laws in these states that require gun owners to store their guns safely, there would not be school shootings,” Watts said.

Brown echoed Watts’s frustration, saying a lack of legislation has fueled “our failure to prevent these horrific tragedies.”

That could change in Michigan. In June, Michigan state Sen. Rosemary Bayer (D), whose district includes Oxford High School, introduced legislation that would hold parents accountable if they failed to secure their firearms. The bill states that a parent would face up to five years in prison if a minor obtains a gun and uses it to injure or kill others.

“We must start holding people accountable for what their kids do,” Bayer, who supports the charges against Crumbley’s parents, told NBC News. “This is not a toy.”

Now that Crumbley’s parents have been charged, could other parents be charged in future school shootings?

While history shows how difficult it is to bring charges to parents whose children are suspects in school shootings, some experts told The Post they believe the charges brought against Crumbley’s parents could help influence future cases.

Metzl said he was unaware of a situation analogous to the one with Crumbley’s parents. He noted that a case could have potentially been made against Nancy Lanza, the mother of Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza, if her son hadn’t killed her before the 2012 attack on an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.

“But this Michigan shooting is one of the more egregious cases I’ve seen in terms of the parents’ involvement,” Metzl said.

The involuntary manslaughter charges brought against Jennifer and James Crumbley should be eye-opening for prosecutors in future school-shooting cases because those charges can be brought anywhere, Brown said.

“I think many other prosecutors looking at this case will take notice,” Brown said. “If there is a conviction, that will spur many other similar charges against parents, and not just in cases of school shootings.”

Watts agreed, saying McDonald bringing charges against Crumbley’s parents is a level of accountability needed for parents who are gun owners.

“It is important for gun owners to understand there is an obligation to safely storing firearms,” she said.

Others, however, cast doubt on the charges in Michigan leading to other charges against parents in future school shootings. Primus said the high legal standards in place in cases like these indicates to her that the charges against Crumbley’s parents could be an isolated, rare example in school shootings.

“I don’t think this is going to spark some wave of charges against parents,” she said. “It’s not an easy charge to make.”

Griff Witte, John Woodrow Cox, Mark Berman, Jennifer Hassan, María Luisa Paúl and Meryl Kornfield contributed to this report.

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