Legal experts, parents: Oxford district's decision to delay review in school shooting now is a mistake

·6 min read
Oxford Community Schools Board of Education President Tom Donnelly speaks during a Board of Education meeting at Oxford Middle School in Oxford on Dec. 14, 2021.
Oxford Community Schools Board of Education President Tom Donnelly speaks during a Board of Education meeting at Oxford Middle School in Oxford on Dec. 14, 2021.

Oxford Community Schools' board announced Tuesday it will not conduct a third-party review into the events surrounding the Nov. 30 high school shooting until civil and criminal litigation surrounding the shooting is resolved.

Such complex legal action will take years to wind through the court system. It's likely even the youngest students who were at the school during the shooting will have graduated by that time.

In a note to community members Tuesday night, board officials wrote that "ongoing criminal cases have understandably delayed the release of information that could be essential to our extensive review." The board first committed to a review in December, shortly after the shooting that left four students dead, six students injured and a teacher injured.

Andrea Jones, the mother of a high school junior, said students are struggling to stay at school all day and feel like the school district is not doing enough to address their concerns.

"They don't feel safe," she said. "A lot of them still have a hard time with the restrooms. A lot of them don't use the restrooms at all during the day. And the cafeteria is another issue. They don't feel comfortable there."

The board has now twice rejected an offer from Attorney General Dana Nessel to conduct an investigation with the resources of her office. Nessel wrote in a statement Wednesday that she was "deeply disappointed" by the board's decision.

"The school board’s unwillingness to partner with my department on this effort flies in the face of transparency," she wrote. "The rejection sends a message that the board is more focused on limiting liability than responding to the loud outcry from the Oxford community."

Oakland County Chief Assistant Prosecutor David Williamswrote in an email to the Free Press that the Prosecutor's Office disagrees with the district's decision to delay a review, and wrote that such a review would not conflict with the office's prosecution.

"There may been some evidence or information that cannot be disclosed while the criminal cases are pending, but we believe the information needed for a meaningful review is already public or would be available to an independent review commission," Williams wrote.

Legal experts say the district is losing precious time in its refusal to conduct a review in the near future.

Doug Fierberg, a Michigan-based attorney who represented families after the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, questioned the legal rationale behind the board's decision.

Waiting until litigation wraps up could take three to five years, he said.

"The passage of time, it impacts memories and impacts records," he said. "It makes absolutely no sense. And there's no legal reason why multiple things can't be proceeding on multiple tracks."

Nessel has previously said an investigation by her office would not interfere with the criminal prosecutions of Ethan Crumbley and his parents, Jennifer and James Crumbley. The 16-year-old is charged with terrorism and first-degree murder, and his parents are facing involuntary manslaughter charges. All three are being held in the Oakland County Jail pending trial.

And now Oxford is facing a firestorm of anger from parents, who say district leaders are turning their backs on students already traumatized by shots ringing through the hallways of their school.

"This is horrible leadership, and unfortunately, there's all these kids at the school and all these victims. ... It's horrible," Buck Myre, whose son Tate was among those killed in the November shooting, said during a news conference on Wednesday afternoon. He added that the district has not helped his grieving family access their son's email so they can save content on his phone.

District faces legal liability

Nessel and others have speculated that the district is worried a third party review would further expose officials to lawsuits over its actions or inactions in the days and hours leading up to the shooting.

Fierberg said the district is likely concerned about what such a report could find.

"Oxford would not want to engage in its own third party investigation and a review that ... could implicate wrongdoing on behalf of the school district," he said.

Oxford Community Schools already faces at least three separate lawsuits from families of Oxford students, two in federal court and at least one in Oakland County Circuit Court. The suits claim district officials were negligent in how they addressed warning signs from Ethan Crumbley.

The morning of the shooting, Crumbley had drawn a graphic image depicting gun violence on a math assignment and wrote, "The thoughts won't stop, help me," on the paper. A teacher spotted it, and Crumbley was taken to a counselor's office, prosecutors said, but was eventually allowed to go back to class.

The district has denied negligence in legal documents.

On Wednesday, parents who are plaintiffs in one of those suits, including Myre, blasted the district for inaction.

Meghan Gregory, the mother of a survivor who was in the bathroom where Ethan Crumbley was shooting, said she has four other kids in the school district, and she fears for their safety.

"I fear in the morning sending them off to school still; that day terrified us," she said.

Mike Dorn, a school safety expert with Safe Havens International, a Georgia-based nonprofit promoting school safety, said independent reviews commissioned after a mass school shooting are actually uncommon, partially because districts are worried about legal liability.

"The other thing is, you run into trauma and we've had quite a few students, parents who've lost children, staff, committed suicide after mass casualty attacks," he said.

Oxford board members, in their statement on Tuesday night, wrote that they are trying to respond to calls for transparency with transparency.

"People inside and outside our community who have joined our call for transparency can be assured that all facts will come to light and no stone will remain unturned through the ongoing criminal investigation and pending civil litigation," they wrote. "We will be engaging highly qualified experts as part of the litigation process to thoroughly review the tragedy and the events leading up to it."

Parents want answers

Some of the parents interviewed on Wednesday said they believe the district is trying to shield itself from legal liability by delaying an independent review.

"At the end of the day, if you feel like you're not guilty, then let's let this investigation happen," Myre said.

Jones and Lori Bourgeau are a part of Change 4 Oxford, a group of parents calling for a review of the events leading up to the shooting and for more safety measures in Oxford schools.

Bourgeau said the district's inaction has prompted some students to speak up in school board meetings and other venues to call for more protection, because they say adults aren't listening to them.

"They feel like their safety is being ignored," she said. "They feel like they don't matter."

Gregory said the district's lack of transparency is "tearing the community apart."

"The truth needs to come out in order for Oxford to heal," she said.

Contact Lily Altavena: laltavena@freepress.com or follow her on Twitter @LilyAlta.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Experts react to Oxford Schools delay of investigation of shooting