Staff Ed: A son opened fire in a school. They were right to blame the mother.

On Nov. 30, 2021, Ethan Crumbley shot and killed four students at Oxford High School in Oxford Township, Michigan. This month, his mother was found guilty on four counts of involuntary manslaughter, for each of the four students her son killed. Set for sentencing on April 9, Jennifer Crumbley could face up to 60 years in prison — and the possibility of joining her son, now 17 years old, as he serves a life sentence without parole.

While school shootings are anything but new, this case is different: it is the first case in which a parent in the U.S. is being held responsible for their child carrying out a mass school shooting. Ms. Crumbley’s conviction was justified because of the many instances in which she was an accomplice to the crime; however, this case may set a dangerous precedent for future cases in which the line of blame is not as clear.

Ms. Crumbley was accused of gross negligence of her son’s warning signs before the shooting. Some of these signs included hypermania, suicidal ideation and a desire to harm others, according to ABC News. Even after being made aware of Ethan’s mental health issues, Ms. Crumbley still provided him with a 9-mm handgun, the weapon used in the shooting.

In addition to the warning signs, Ms. Crumbley’s negligence was further demonstrated on the morning of the shooting. One of Ethan’s teachers found a drawing he made of a gun and bullets with the words, “The thoughts won’t stop. Help me. The world is dead. My life is useless,” written next to a bleeding victim.

Administrators called Ms.Crumbley and her husband to a meeting at the school, but they refused to take Ethan home, claiming “they could not take him home because they both had to return to work,” according to ABC News. Such obvious warning signs from Ethan, paired with his aggressive behaviors and clear mental health issues, were carelessly ignored by his parents.

The day before the shooting, Ethan was searching for images of ammunition during class. His teacher called Ms. Crumbley to discuss Ethan’s concerning behavior, but she seemed to be unbothered. In a text message between the two that was later uncovered by police, Ms. Crumbley wrote, “Lol. I’m not mad at you. You have to learn not to get caught.” This chilling exchange between the two further shows that Ms. Crumbley did not only fail to stop her son’s aggressive outbursts, but further encouraged his violent behavior. She abandoned her duty as a parent; the tragic death of four students was the result of her ignorance.

In past cases of school shootings, the full blame has been placed on the perpetrator or group of perpetrators. The Crumbleys’ case is an outlier; it is clear that Ethan’s parents, through their gross negligence, played a direct role in the crime committed.

But the ruling — the first of its kind — could set a murky precedent for future school shooting cases, in which the line of responsibility between parent and child may not be as clear. Are there specific actions that a parent must take for them to be directly tied to their child’s actions? Or should it be at the discretion of a judge to pronounce parental liability?

The answers to these questions are subject to debate. What is certain is the responsibility does not lie solely with the parents; when a child is at school, administrators must be held accountable.

In this case, the administrators at Oxford High School let Ethan slip off their radar even after he displayed blatant and alarming warning signs. Ethan was allowed to leave, unattended, to the restroom with his backpack, where he pulled out the gun and fatally shot four of his classmates.

On campus, teachers act in the place of guardians — in loco parentis. It is important that administrators are fully aware of their students’ mental states and are actively working with them to ensure they do not intend to harm themselves or others.

School shootings will persist, but holding others accountable is a warning to parents that neglecting their children’s mental health issues has consequences. Liability for a shooting cannot lie with a single person — parents, administrators and the lawmakers who enable a minor to own a gun are also at fault. While negligence was clear in the Crumbley case, future cases may not be as black-and-white.

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