James and Jennifer Crumbley, the parents of Ethan Crumbley, the perpetrator of the Oxford High School shooting who killed four students and injured seven others in 2021–when he was 15 years old–are on trial for manslaughter. They have pleaded not guilty, but the law alleges otherwise.
The law says that parents are held responsible because they have a duty to educate and supervise their minor children. So, if their minor child (a child under 18) causes harm to another person, the law maintains that the parents have not met their duty. The theory is that harm would not have occurred if the child had been properly supervised and educated.
Many hard questions come to mind on the subject, the first being, do good parents make good children?
Who has not heard stories about parents who have raised their children with all the care and responsibility possible, yet the kid still went bad? Became a drug addict, took to committing crimes, refuses to work or acts in other socially unacceptable ways?
The trial of the Crumbleys hinges on the fact, alleged by prosecutors, that they knew the extent of their son’s mental instability and failed to prevent the tragedy. A statement that Jennifer made after the shooting when she said, “You know my biggest fear was that he was gonna turn the gun on himself.”
The Crumbleys are the first parents in the U.S. to be charged in a mass school shooting committed by their child and the case is set to test limits of who’s ultimately responsible for it.
Prosecutors arrested his parents and accused them of giving their son easy access to a firearm and disregarding signs he was a threat. Ethan Crumbley also confirmed, when he was arrested, that the murder weapon was not properly locked up in the family home.
“In Jennifer Crumbley’s statement to the police, Jennifer minimizes her knowledge of, and concern about, her son’s mental health crisis. For example, when she was asked about the extremely disturbing drawings made by her son just before the shooting, she said that she ‘didn’t even look at them that closely,’” the filing says. But screenshots of Facebook messages included in the court documents show she did suspect the gravity of his instability. She expressed concern over some of her son’s very disturbing drawings to her husband, saying things like “Call NOW. Emergency,” the court filing states. (Why such sensitive messages were exchanged on Facebook is another puzzle.)
The responsibility of the parents—to the extent of being on trial for manslaughter—is not the only gray area in this, because according to students and parents, rumors regarding threats of a mass shooting occurring at the school had been circulating before the incident occurred—indeed, they were loud enough and credible enough for some students to stay home on the day of the shooting.
Earlier that month, in response to an act of vandalism that included a severed deer head being thrown off the school roof and into the courtyard, school administrators published a note to parents, saying they had been investigating the rumors but found no threat. Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard said his office was not aware of any credible threats prior to the shooting.
Finally, on the morning of the shooting, a teacher found a drawing from Ethan showing a gun and a person bleeding along with the phrases, “the thoughts won’t stop help me,” “blood everywhere” and “my life is useless.” His parents were called into school for a meeting, but they did not inform the school Ethan had access to a gun and declined to take him out of classes for the day. Shortly after, Ethan took the gun out of his backpack and opened fire.
According to testimony by neighbors, the Crumbleys were not ideal parents. A former neighbor told the Detroit Free Press that, shortly after the family moved to Michigan a few years later, in 2014 and 2015, Jennifer and James often left their son home alone and without a phone while frequenting bars in downtown Lake Orion. The neighbor became so concerned that she filed an anonymous complaint via phone to the state’s child protective services agency. Sadly, nothing came of it.
While the question of who is ultimately to blame when a minor commits violence is murky, in this case the shooter himself blames the parents for not having prevented it. The desperate boy wrote in his journal, “I have zero help for my mental problems and it’s causing me to shoot up the … school.”
“My parents won’t listen to me about help or therapist,” the boy said, adding that he would spend his life in prison and that “many people have about a day left to live.” Ethan also wrote that he had access to a gun and ammunition: “I am fully committed.”
There is no other country on Earth that has as many mass shootings as the US and this tragedy seems to encapsulate more than a few of the elements that have led to this shameful statistic: neglectful parents, rampant mental illness that is ignored, the ubiquity of weapons, and school administrations afraid to take preemptive acts. There is plenty of blame to go around. Ethan reached out, no one came to his help. Not child protective services, not the school, not the police, not even his own parents.