The Crumbley Convictions: Who Should Be Held Responsible for School Shootings?

While we may be comforted by the pursuit and conviction of people based on vicarious liability, we may also be creating an injustice, one school safety expert warns.

The Crumbley Convictions: Who Should Be Held Responsible for School Shootings?

Photo: Feng Yu - stock.adobe.com

Very few times in our personal and professional lives, we see a real landmark change in how our society functions. Be that as it may, we have just seen it in the conviction and sentencing of James and Jennifer Crumbley, parents of the Oxford, Mich., high school shooter.

James and Jennifer Crumbley are being held criminally responsible for what their son did when he killed four classmates and for what they didn’t do as parents. This is the first time such a charge has been made and a conviction has been sought and achieved. This is groundbreaking, but is it right?

That seems to be the question at hand. Was charging the parents for what their son did the correct action in this case, or was it a response to the helplessness we feel in the face of the continuing deadly trend of school shootings? To break that question down, we must look at its constituent parts.

First, the Oxford High School shooting was a tragedy. It was a homicidal criminal act and something that will cause continued suffering for the victims’ families. The community will also suffer from this terrible event, as will the many students who were seriously injured or witnessed the shooting. In a previous article I wrote after another tragic active shooter event, I posited that in many instances, we can spot potentially dangerous people before they attack us. The key is recognizing the signs and doing something about it. The Oxford school shooting and the conviction of the parents of the shooter may finally bring this into tighter focus and create a moment of action.

Second, it presents us with facts about how and why this attack occurred. We must study these facts so we can try to understand if there are things that we can do in the future to prevent a similar incident. The arrest and charging of the Crumbleys is a turning point. It is the act of holding people accountable for what they knew and should have acted on to prevent violence. If this case survives the appellate division of the courts (and I have some doubts it will), it will change laws and how law enforcement officials conduct their investigations.

Some of the lessons learned must include understanding if the parents of the killer truly understood the danger their son posed; the trial results seem to indicate that the juries believe they did. We must also understand the processes that were in place for the parents, friends, teachers, and the shooter himself to report concerns, and then who was in place to investigate those concerns. We also have to understand what resources were in place — if any — to respond to these reports.

In this school shooting, the trial seemed to reveal the parents knew of their son’s problems, the killer himself knew he had problems and asked his parents for help, and the school was aware of his potential problems. Why did no one act on it?

Should Vicarious Liability Apply to School Shootings?

That leads me to the crux of this piece and the third consideration. Besides the shooter, is anyone else responsible for this heinous crime? This is where this case and the convictions of the Crumbleys can affect all of us. Let me say clearly that I believe the shooter is responsible for the carnage and death that day at Oxford High School and that he received an appropriate punishment (life without parole). I also believe his parents may have culpability in the violence and killing that took the lives of four innocent young people and injured many more.

I say may have culpability because we all need to know more about the facts of this case. In general, the prosecutor found the parents had vicarious liability as it relates to their son’s actions and they were charged criminally. If, as the prosecution tells us, the parents, with the knowledge they had, should have intervened before the violence and saved lives. Some facts we were all provided via news accounts were:

  • The killer was having mental health problems and asked for help but his parents ignored this request
  • His parents bought him a gun several days before the shooting and made it available to him — the gun was not secured
  • His parents knew he was dangerous

If all of this information is correct — that the Crumbleys understood the danger yet they ignored the potential for violence and did nothing to prevent their son from attacking his classmates — then I think a case can be made that they have some if not a lot of responsibility.

While the facts in this particular incident make a case for parental responsibility, we must ask if the laws in place were specific to this kind of event or if they were interpreted to fit the facts of this case. In other words, is using the concept of vicarious liability — that a person who has charge over another person therefore has responsibility for their actions — fair? Although vicarious liability is an accepted concept in the workplace, does that concept hold the same power concerning the parent/child dynamic?

The vicarious liability concept works with a bartender and an over-served customer because the bartender is making on-scene observations of the patron and is directly involved in the intoxication of a person who eventually drives and kills someone in a car accident. The idea is if not for the actions of the bartender, the patron would not be intoxicated and would not have caused a deadly accident. There is a clear and straight line between the events and the people involved.

The problem we have as a society is that this case is potentially opening a whole new area of vicarious liability. It is an area that may have more consequences than intended. It can lead to prosecutions that may be unwarranted — or even unjust — as the potential to pursue suspects can be governed by emotion or other nefarious motives. And in either of those cases, while we may be assuaged and comforted by the pursuit and conviction of people based on vicarious liability, we may also be creating an injustice.

In any event, the facts of the Crumbley case will work their way through the courts, and the arrest and convictions may be upheld or they may be rejected. If upheld all the way to the Supreme Court, new laws will be established in many (if not all) of the 50 states. A new era of responsibility will dawn.

Vicarious Liability: Where Do We Draw the Line?

While that might seem like a good idea, let’s consider these points. Where else will vicarious liability be established? If a husband has too much alcohol to drink and decides to run to the store for milk and bread in an intoxicated state, is his wife now responsible for calling the police to report his driving while intoxicated? If he has a car crash on the way and people are killed, is the wife then responsible and can be arrested, tried, and convicted?

What if a teenager is a known gang member and their parents know this to be true, and they also know that this gang deals drugs and is violent? If this teenager is involved in an altercation or a robbery and an innocent person is killed, will the parents then be liable to prosecution?

What if an intellectually disability child injures or kills another young person? Are the parents liable to prosecution because they did not secure their child in the home?

As you can imagine, this “what if” questioning can go on all day. The possible scenarios are endless for the ways people could be held liable for the actions of another if we want it to be so. As a society, we need to decide the value of increasing the kinds of events that can determine responsibility for those not directly involved in the crime, and we have to determine how we are going to make it known to everyone what their culpability is.

We must decide how to deal with poor parenting, how to help parents with limited ability to comprehend the signs of potential problems, and how to train our school officials to recognize the signs of potential violence. We must also train our police officers to properly investigate any and all threats.

Some of the things I suggest are very difficult. How do we legislate poor parenting or the inability to comprehend danger or to see our child’s actions as potentially deadly? And what kind of events do we designate as worthy of assigning vicarious liability to the point of prosecution?

The tragedy of the Oxford school shooting has destroyed many innocent families. Nothing will bring back the precious lives of the four students killed. Nothing will fully comfort the grieving families who have spoken of their pain and suffering. But that does not mean we don’t have to do more to prevent the next school shooting.

The Oxford school shooter will spend his entire life in prison, as is just. James and Jennifer Crumbly will spend 10-15 years in prison, depending on the courts. All of us can look for and learn the lessons this incident offers to make schools safer for our children.

Our state governments need to create specific laws to address this kind of liability, define it, and ensure it is fair and applied equally. And we all need to hope that whatever is created has value for our society and does not go too far with good intentions.

There are many things to consider.


Joseph Pangaro is a retired police lieutenant from Ocean Township, N.J. and the former director of school safety and security for a large school district in New Jersey. He is a Certified Public Manager (CPM) and the owner and CEO of True Security Design. He can be reached at JPangaro@TrueSecurityDesign.com.

Note: The views expressed by guest bloggers and contributors are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Campus Safety.

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