Editor’s Note: Jillian Peterson, Ph.D. and James Densley, Ph.D., are co-founders and co-presidents of The Violence Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research center. They are the authors of the award-winning book, “The Violence Project: How to stop a mass shooting epidemic.” The views expressed in this commentary are the authors’ own. View more opinion on CNN.
The parents of a teenager who shot and killed four students at Oxford High School in Michigan in November 2021 are set to stand trial for involuntary manslaughter after an appellate court last week rejected their contention that the charges have no legal justification.
The fact that yet another school shooting took place within days of this decision, as three children and three adults were killed Monday at Covenant School in Nashville, Tennessee, only underscores the urgency of finding ways to prevent these tragedies.
In the Michigan case, the appeals court acknowledged that holding parents accountable for their child’s crime is precedent-setting, but the judges said the unusual and unique facts of this mass murder require that prosecutors be allowed to make the case for doing so.
The appellate decision is a game-changer in the fight to end the epidemic of school shootings in this country. It’s rare for adult gun owners to be charged in relation to school shootings because parents of shooters have a constitutional right to own a firearm, and most states don’t have laws requiring gun owners to secure their weapons when children are in the household. This ruling sends a powerful statement that no child kills in a vacuum – and that principle might be key to unlocking legislation around safe storage and preventing parents from buying guns for children who are a threat to themselves and others.
James and Jennifer Crumbley, who have pleaded not guilty, allegedly neglected cries for help from their son for months and dismissed serious concerns from the school the day before and the morning of the shooting. Yet even as they apparently ignored warning signs, the Crumbleys bought their son a gun and took him to target practice. Fifteen at the time of the mass shooting, their son pleaded guilty in October to terrorism and murder charges.
Since 1996, we have studied the life histories of nearly 200 mass shooters, initially with funding from the National Institute of Justice, to understand their behaviors and find ways to stop them. We have interviewed perpetrators and people who knew them – including their parents – and have found that mass shooters generally, and school shooters particularly, follow a similar pathway to violence.
School shooters tend to be White boys and young men who are current or former students of the schools they target. The Oxford shooter is no different. Many of the facts about this perpetrator are also not surprising.
In their recent opinion, judges cited text messages that the perpetrator sent his parents months before the shooting demonstrating paranoia and delusions. In our research on school mass shooters, 85% showed similar warning signs of a crisis and 92% were suicidal. Further, 93% of school mass shooters communicated violent intent ahead of time and 86% showed a high degree of planning before the shooting. Lastly, 73% of all school mass shooters had a history of childhood trauma, and there are allegations that was at play here, too.
These early signs should be helpful in stopping mass shootings. Unfortunately, in this case, the parents didn’t heed them. The day before the Oxford shooting, a school administrator called James and Jennifer Crumbley because their son was allegedly looking at firearms ammunition online during class. His mother texted her son, “LOL I’m not mad at you. You have to learn not to get caught.”
Then on the day of the shooting, they were called into school because their son drew a gun on his math worksheet with the words: “The thoughts won’t stop Help me” and “Blood everywhere.” The Crumbleys didn’t immediately take their son out of school for mental health treatment. (They reportedly said they had to return to work.) Later that afternoon, he murdered four of his classmates.
The Crumbleys did even more than fail to intervene, however, which is what makes this case so different. While a majority of school mass shooters obtain their firearm from home, according to our research, the Oxford High School shooter was allegedly given his gun by his parents.
James Crumbley purchased the weapon for his son four days before the shooting, using his son’s own money. Jennifer then took him to the range to practice with it. According to the perpetrator’s own court testimony, he later retrieved the gun from an unlocked container in his home and hid it in his school backpack.
Though this behavior on the part of parents is unusual, it isn’t unheard of. The Crumbleys aren’t the only ones who overlook the warning signs, which is part of why accountability for them could prompt other parents to intervene.
In our research, we’ve encountered three types of parents of mass shooters. The most common type create chaos and trauma with their parenting. These parents have often experienced trauma themselves. They may have suffered from domestic violence, addiction or mental illness, or they may have been victims of childhood abuse or neglect in the past.
Today, they may be emotionally distant or overwhelmed by their own problems, prone to outbursts of anger or neglectful of their children’s needs. As a result, they struggle to provide a stable environment for their children. Children who grow up in these environments may suffer from early childhood trauma, which can lead to a host of psychological and behavioral problems later in life, including violence if not addressed. These parents need support and services, not criminal prosecution. Universal trauma screening and school-based mental health may help identify the children living in these families who need early intervention.
The second type is parents who sense that something is wrong with their child but don’t know what to do or who to turn to for help. Several of the mothers of perpetrators we’ve interviewed fall into this category.
They may downplay problems or ignore warning signs because they fear a punitive, police-led intervention will only make things worse. This is why we have to be careful of the slippery slope of criminally charging parents in these cases – we want to encourage parents who are concerned about their child to seek the necessary help without hesitating for fear of legal repercussions.
But then there are parents like the Crumbleys, who did more than just not asking for help. They were allegedly told something was very wrong with their child but chose to ignore or dismiss warning signs while enabling and accelerating future violence by offering easy access to a gun.
They did so even though they were aware that their child had a history of violent behavior or disqualifying mental illness. For example, the father of the 2022 Highland Park mass shooter is facing criminal felony charges after agreeing to sponsor his son’s gun license after his son was accused of threatening to kill his family and after his son attempted suicide with a machete. The father has pled not guilty.
It’s important to note that not all parents of mass shooters fit neatly into these three categories, and not all mass shooters come from dysfunctional families. However, understanding the role that parents can play in shaping their children’s behavior and mental health is an important step in preventing future tragedies.
We can provide better support for families affected by trauma and mental illness, as well as better resources for parents who may be struggling to raise their children in a safe and healthy environment. And in extreme cases like the Oxford shooting, we can hold parents who directly influence these tragedies criminally accountable.
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