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Illustration by Security Management

Parents of School Shooting Survivors File Lawsuit to Hold District Officials Accountable

A week after a school shooting in Michigan killed four students and injured several others, the family of two survivors filed a lawsuit against school officials seeking $100 million in damages.

Jeffrey and Brandi Franzi, parents of Riley, 17, and Bella, 14, filed the U.S. federal lawsuit on behalf of their children. Riley was shot in the neck during the incident, which her sister witnessed. The Franzis claim that their daughters’ constitutional rights were violated because under Michigan law they “had a clearly established right to be free from danger.” The lawsuit also claims that school staff acted in “reckless disregard” for the victims’ safety, The New York Times reports.

Ethan Crumbley, 15, is in custody and is charged with four counts of first-degree murder and terrorism for allegedly opening fire at Oxford High School on 30 November 2021.

Prior to the shooting, a teacher caught Crumbley conducting an Internet search for ammunition on his smartphone and contacted his parents to raise concerns. The teacher did not get a response.

The morning of the shooting, another teacher found a drawing said to be by Crumbley of a gun, a person who had been shot, and the words “the thoughts won’t stop. Help me,” written on it. The teacher alerted school officials, who called Crumbley’s parents to a counselor’s office to meet with him and their son. The Crumbleys refused to take their son home after the meeting, and they were instructed to enter him into counseling within 48 hours or be reported to Children’s Protective Services. Crumbley was allowed to return to class after the meeting, shortly after which he allegedly opened fire.

Crumbley’s parents, James and Jennifer Crumbley, are also facing involuntary manslaughter charges for the shooting. In the lead-up to the shooting, James Crumbley purchased a semiautomatic handgun that Ethan Crumbley was allowed to use and posted on social media about. James and Jennifer Crumbley kept the firearm in an unlocked drawer in their bedroom. On the day of the shooting, the Crumbleys did not inform school officials that their son had access to a firearm—the same model of gun that Ethan Crumbley allegedly used to carry out the shooting.

“Just before 1 p.m., gunfire erupted. Ethan Crumbley had gone into a bathroom with his backpack, came out with a gun and started blasting shots down the hallway, according to video evidence from inside the school,” the Detroit Free Press reports. “The sophomore surrendered in five minutes to sheriffs deputies who arrived at the scene, police said.” 

Oxford school officials are facing criticism for failing to search Crumbley’s belongings—including a backpack he brought with him to the meeting in the counselor’s office—and for allowing him to return to class.

In a statement, the Oxford School District Superintendent Tim Thorne said that counselors observed Crumbley on 30 November for approximately an hour and a half while they attempted to reach his parents. 

“While waiting for his parents to arrive, the student verbalized his concern that he would be missing homework assignments and requested his science homework, which he then worked on while in the office,” Thorne said. “At no time did counselors believe the student might harm others based on his behavior, responses, and demeanor, which appeared calm.”

Thorne also added that once Crumbley’s parents arrived to speak with counselors, his answers to questions “led counselors to again conclude he did not intend on committing either self-harm or harm to others. The student’s parents never advised the school district that he had direct access to a firearm or that they had recently purchased a firearm for him.”

Others, including the Franzis, say officials failed to take threats of violence against the school seriously before the shooting occurred.

“The lawsuit filed on Thursday says that ‘Ethan Crumbley posted countdowns and threats of bodily harm’ on social media, and that parents complained to administrators about such social media messages in the weeks before the shooting, but that the superintendent, Tim Thorne, and principal, Steven Wolf, said the threats were not credible,” according to Times analysis of the lawsuit.

The lawsuit also claims that school officials did not include the school safety officer, an Oakland County Sheriff’s deputy, in their meeting with Crumbley and his parents.

The shooting demonstrates the difficulty school officials have in determining what is and is not a credible threat of violence. In the past week, Michigan Wayne County prosecutors have charged 23 youths for making threats of violence and placed another 10 under investigation.

“We have been trying to educate parents: talk to your children, make sure they report and let them understand that even if they commit an offense like this and they are not charged, there can be lifelong consequences,” said Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy. “Parents, please talk to your children. Let them know this is serious. Let them know even if they intend it to be a prank, it isn’t a joke.”

And in Virginia, the Manassas Park School District cancelled classes on Friday, 10 December, after a social media threat was brought to officials’ attention. A high school student was later arrested and charged for making the threat of a possible shooting at a school facility, according to local news affiliate News4. 

Many school officials are turning to threat detection systems, which can review social media posts, search student’s belongings, and examine their records. There is a push, however, to create multidisciplinary teams for threat detection that include administrators, school-based police officers, and mental health professionals. 

Threat assessment team recommendations are linked back to reviews conducted after campus shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007 and Northern Illinois University in 2008, which recommended colleges and universities create threat assessment teams as a key measure to prevent violence before it occurs. 

The U.S. Secret Service recommends a five-step process for establishing a threat assessment team with a multidisciplinary approach to information sharing, according to previous Security Management coverage.

These steps include: 

  1. Establishing a multidisciplinary team

  2. Defining prohibited and concerning behavior

  3. Creating a central reporting system

  4. Determining the threshold for law enforcement intervention

  5. Establishing assessment procedures

“Threat assessment is a necessary part of threat prevention at every K-12 school,” wrote Cody Mulla, CPP. “Threat assessment programs and teams will be more successful if they are a function of an overarching enterprise risk management process, fueled by both internal and external sources of information.”

And amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, warning signs of potential violence are evolving because of the life changes many students have faced in the past two years—economic uncertainty, family instability, isolation, and financial stress—that in normal times can herald a potentially dangerous shift in behavior. 

The Franzis are expected to file another lawsuit in Michigan state court and are being represented by Geoffrey Fieger, who also represented survivors of the 1999 Columbine High School shooting.

The school district has hired an independent security consultant to review all of its safety practices and procedures. It maintains that the response, once the shooter began firing, was “efficient, exemplary, and definitely prevented further deaths and injuries,” according to Thorne.