Should Parents of School Shooters Be Punished?

By Claire Wilson 

April 24, 2024
A memorial at Oxford High School in December 2021 (Photo credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images) 

On Tuesday, the parents of school shooter Ethan Crumbley were convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to 10-15 years in prison, the first time in U.S. history parents of a school shooter have been charged for the deaths their child caused. The question of parent responsibility is a relatively new one in the gun safety discourse, and the sentencing of the Crumbleys has sparked intense debate about the extent to which parents should be held accountable. 

On November 30th, 2021, high school sophomore Ethan Crumbley opened fire during passing period at Oxford High School in Oxford Michigan, killing four students with a gun his father bought for him. According to Joseph Stepansky of Al Jazeera, Ethan’s parents “not only… fail[ed] to secure the firearms in their home, but they also did not pursue “reasonable care” to prevent their son from engaging in harmful acts, prosecutors said.

Many gun safety groups and activists believe that holding parents accountable can serve as a preventative measure through precedent.  “We can provide schools with security plans and active shooter drills, but making more parents criminally responsible could be a powerful preventative fix,” said Danny Cevallos of MSNBC. Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald’s decision to charge the Crumbley parents was a highly unusual one, but she said in an interview, “I just instinctively knew there was just absolutely no way I was not going to prosecute them when I heard all the evidence.” 

This kind of case is difficult to prosecute because the jury needs to be convinced that the parents knew that their child was capable of the crimes they committed before they happened. Eve Brensike Primus, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Law says, “that requires a level of mental culpability that is more challenging for a prosecutor to prove.” 

Photo credit: Oakland County Sheriff's Office via AP

But in this case, the evidence is damning. Four days before the shooting, James Crumbley bought his son a gun as an early Christmas present. The morning of the shooting, Ethan Crumbley was caught searching for ammunition online by a teacher. The teacher reported it to school administrators, who contacted Ethan’s parents, James and Jennifer Crumbley. They did not respond, but later that day, Jennifer sent a text message to her son, saying, “LOL I’m not mad at you. You have to learn not to get caught.” On the day of the shooting, a teacher found Ethan’s disturbing and violent drawings and writing and reported the incident. During a meeting with a school counselor, the Crumbleys acted nonchalant and left him at school, despite being urged to take him to see a professional. 

It’s important to understand how Michigan’s lack of Child Access Prevention, or CAP, laws affect the case. These laws make it illegal for parents to keep a gun in a place where it is easily accessible by children, and states with stronger CAP laws have seen significant reductions in child gun deaths. A 2020 study by Hooman Alexander Azad et al. found a that states with stronger CAP laws were associated with a 13% reduction in all shooting deaths among children younger than 15 years old, with a 15% reduction in homicides, a 12% reduction in suicides, and a 13% reduction in accidental deaths. 

According to Spencer Bokat-Lindell of the New York Times, some argue that McDonald is “inappropriately trying to compensate for Michigan’s lack of child-access prevention laws by, in effect, retroactively criminalizing the Crumbleys’ behavior and calling it manslaughter.” There is certainly a line between homicide and knowing that a child is capable of killing or has access to weapons, and crossing this line could set a precedent for prosecutorial overreach. 

Karen McDonald chose to prosecute the Crumbley parents because they “‘could have stopped’ this crime,” says Kevin Reed of World Socialist Website. “But who else ‘could have stopped’ this and the countless other shootings that have ruined the lives of thousands of people in the past two decades? What about those responsible for decades of cuts to education and mental health programs that make it so that troubled children can carry out such horrific acts?” Reed argues that the solution is not to put more people in prison and expand the power of prosecutors, because these measures redirect public anger away from social problems and onto individuals. 

The fact remains, the Crumbley parents most likely could have intervened and prevented a tragedy if not for their extreme carelessness. “You have a painful crime. You have a legal novelty and an unprecedented action,” said Ekow Yankah, a law professor at the University of Michigan. “ And I think there’s this kind of deep intuition about: At what point are your children’s actions not your own?” This approach raises a host of other questions. How much can parents really know about what is going on in a teen’s life? When do a child’s actions become their responsibility? 

Jennifer Crumbley, left, and James Crumbley appear in 6th Circuit Court for their pretrial hearing with James Crumbley's defense attorney Mariell Lehman, center, on March 22, 2022 (Photo credit: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)