Prosecutions and lawsuits spread blame for school shootings

On Tuesday, parents in Michigan were sentenced to prison for what they did — and didn’t do — before their son’s high school rampage. The same day in Virginia, court records showed what are thought to be the first criminal charges against a school leader for missed warnings, in her case before a 6-year-old shot his teacher.

Meanwhile, in Uvalde, Tex., civil suits seeking to hold city officials and others responsible for a 2022 massacre at Robb Elementary School continue to make their way through the courts.

In a country where mass killings occur at a relentless pace, it’s not just the shooters who are being held responsible, as the blood and death haunting classrooms and playgrounds alters society’s collective sense of accountability.

Gun manufacturers, gun stores and public officials have all faced civil suits. Parents are being scrutinized over how their children got access to firearms used in school shootings. And experts say the criminal charges against a Virginia school official are particularly striking, and could inspire more prosecutors to look deeply at the conduct of teachers or administrators in the wake of classroom massacres.

Americans are frustrated by the political impasse over proposals to restrict access to guns and are “just exhausted” by the bloodshed, said Ron Avi Astor, a professor of social welfare at UCLA who studies school shootings. At the same time, training and data about school shootings has spread far and wide, and practices for preventing and responding to them are well established.

“Every principal and vice principal should be aware there is a level of culpability right now,” Astor said. “To say, ‘I wasn’t aware, I didn’t see the signs’ is not acceptable for us as a society. It’s not just a small trend. I think we’ve reached a level where we just don’t want to take it anymore.”

In 2023, there were eight incidents of planned shootings in schools, a number that has been on an upward climb over the last several decades, according to the K-12 School Shooting Database. Last year, the database tallied 348 total school shootings, including those that resulted from fights and were otherwise spontaneous. And every few years the country has been shaken by an assault producing massive casualties: 26 gunned down in Newtown, Conn.; 17 killed at a high school in Parkland, Fla.; 21 dead in Uvalde.

Eric Tirschwell, executive director of Everytown Law, the litigation arm of Everytown for Gun Safety, said these civil suits are aimed at both accountability and deterrence. “It’s really expanding the tools that we have … to advance behavior change and shake up the way that we’ve been approaching gun violence,” he said.

Attempts to hold others accountable for a shooter’s actions are not entirely new. They date back at least to the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, in which two 12th-grade students killed 12 of their classmates, one teacher and themselves.

Those murders spurred a flurry of lawsuits against local officials, including law enforcement. Most were dismissed — although one suit against police was settled for $1.5 million. The families of victims also sued the shooters’ families and two people who allegedly helped the teens get access to guns, settling the case for $2.5 million.

But experts say they are seeing a rise in civil suits and novel criminal prosecutions like the one in Richneck. And a paper published this year in the Yale Journal on Regulation found there is an “increasing willingness of the plaintiffs’ bar to bring claims” against gun manufacturers following a shooting or mass killing event, including those in Newtown and Uvalde. The report noted there have been seven high-profile suits pursued against gun manufacturers in the last three years alone.

Josh Koskoff, a Connecticut attorney who has represented the families of several mass killing victims, cites a rising sense of helplessness combined with frustration over legislative inaction. It’s led families to look for alternate solutions, including lawsuits seeking to hold gun manufacturers and sellers responsible for the deaths their weapons cause.

Koskoff represented the families of nine people killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in Newtown, Conn., securing a landmark $73 million settlement with the now-bankrupt Remington Arms, which manufactured the gun the perpetrator used to kill 20 first-graders and six educators. He also represents families in Uvalde, where he said they were “reviewing their legal options.”

“It used to be you might look at a situation and your heart would go out to a family that had lost a child, but you’d think it’s too big a hurdle to hold the gun industry accountable,” he said. “But now, lawyers see the possibilities in bringing cases where they may not have seen them before.”

‘Coming at this from all sides’

It was a 15-year-old high school student who gunned down four of his classmates at Oxford High School in Michigan and wounded seven others. Ethan Crumbley was sentenced to life in prison for his crimes.

But prosecutors almost immediately assigned some of the blame to his parents, James and Jennifer Crumbley, who bought their son the weapon while, they said, ignoring his mental health struggles. The day of the shooting, the parents had been summoned to the school to discuss violent images and messages their son scrawled on his homework — including a drawing of a gun and the words “The thoughts won’t stop. Help me.” The Crumbleys never told school officials he had access to a gun.

In a rarity, they were both charged and convicted of involuntary manslaughter. Oakland County Circuit Judge Cheryl A. Matthews admonished both of them from the bench this week as she sentenced the Crumbleys to 10 to 15 years in prison.

“Mrs. Crumbley, you glorified the use and possession of these weapons,” Matthews said to Jennifer Crumbley, 45. “Your attitude toward your son and his behavior was dispassionate and apathetic.”

In Virginia, prosecutors also looked beyond the actions of a 6-year-old boy who grabbed his mother’s handgun out of her purse, brought it to Richneck Elementary School in his backpack and that afternoon, shot and seriously injured his teacher, Abigail Zwerner.

His mother was convicted in federal and state courts of firearms violations and child neglect for lying on a background check when she purchased the gun used in the shooting and failing to secure it. She is currently serving out her sentences.

And in what is believed to be a first, prosecutors charged Richneck’s former assistant principal, Ebony Parker, with eight counts of child abuse. A special grand jury found she was warned three times on the day of the shooting that the boy had a weapon but failed to do anything.

The case is also being litigated in civil court. Zwerner filed a $40 million lawsuit against the school district and several officials, citing Parker’s role.

Parker’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment, but in a response to the lawsuit denied Zwerner’s claims. Parker resigned from Richneck after the shooting.

Debra Baum, who survived a 2022 Fourth of July mass killing in Highland Park, Ill., followed the cases in Michigan and Virginia closely. It felt to her like America might be starting to hold people accountable for the shootings that have converted so many schools, dance clubs and grocery stores into sites of tragedy and death. In the Illinois case, the shooter and his father both faced charges in connection with the case.

“I just feel like we’re now coming at this from all sides, and I’m hopeful that the national opinion is changing,” Baum said. “People are paying attention to how scary and dangerous a situation this is.”

Criminal prosecutions also sometimes come up empty.

The lone armed school resource officer assigned to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., was charged after he remained outside the school while Nikolas Cruz shot and killed 17 people in 2018. He was the first law enforcement officer in the country to be charged with allegedly mishandling a school shooting.

Broward County Sheriff’s Deputy Scot Peterson was suspended after the shooting and later resigned. His lack of action during a crucial four-minute stretch of the shooting outraged parents and the sheriff, who chastised him publicly for not doing more to save lives.

Peterson was charged with multiple counts of neglect of child, culpable negligence and perjury for allegedly lying about what he did on the day of the shooting. But some legal and police experts questioned whether his actions amounted to criminal wrongdoing and said the legal theory of the case pressed beyond the limit of Florida’s child neglect law, which was designed to protect children from irresponsible caregivers, not police officers.

Peterson was acquitted on all counts at trial. “The prosecutors tried to sacrifice and pursue baseless charges against a man who did everything he could with the limited information he had under the most stressful of circumstances,” Peterson’s attorney said after the verdict.

Still, in January, a Florida judge allowed a civil suit against Peterson by families of the victims to move forward.

Tim Carey, a law and policy adviser at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions, said it’s not clear we are seeing a sea change in who is being held responsible for school shootings, but he does think authorities appear increasingly willing to charge parents and officials when glaring failures contribute to such an incident.

“The Crumbley case and the [Richneck] case are both seemingly unique in that there is this very clear line of opportunities for any reasonable person to intervene and prevent a horrific tragedy,” Carey said. “Those opportunities were heard and willfully ignored and that is what I think is most important about these cases. It may not be a paradigm shift for all school shootings, but at least it provides responsibility when there is a clear line drawn.”

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