Am I My Son’s Keeper?


The United States has struggled with a gun violence crisis for more than two decades. During that time, an average of 35,000 people per year have died from gun violence in a growing epidemic that has spawned more than 300 school shootings.

We hear almost daily of single-victim shootings and are largely calloused in our reaction to them. But school shootings and other mass victim attacks still get our attention, as does gun violence and murder by children.

In the past few months, the father of 21-year-old Robert Crimo, who carried out the deadly Highland Park, Illinois, mass shooting in 2022, pleaded guilty to reckless conduct for sponsoring his son’s gun ownership application despite clear warning signs of serious mental issues. The mother of a Virginia 6-year-old who shot his teacher was sentenced to two years in prison for felony child neglect.

And now, the parents of 15-year-old Ethan Crumbley, who shot and killed four of his classmates and wounded seven others in Oxford, Michigan, on Nov. 30, 2021, were each charged with four counts of involuntary manslaughter, making them the first parents of a school shooter to face such serious charges. If convicted, each parent faces up to 15 years in prison.

Ethan Crumbley pleaded guilty in 2022 and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. His parents, Jennifer and James Crumbley, are facing separate trials. Jennifer Crumbley’s case went first. Last week, a Michigan jury found her guilty on all four counts of manslaughter. That verdict could set an important precedent on the issue of whether, and in what circumstances, parents of school shooters can be held accountable for their children’s actions.

While there was no allegation that Jennifer Crumbley or her husband knew about their son’s plan, prosecutors argued that parental action could make them responsible for their son’s conduct. Prosecutors showed that the Crumbleys bought their son a gun four days before the shooting, failed to secure the gun properly and had ample warning signs that their son could pose a serious threat to others.

Beyond that, when the Crumbleys were called in to Ethan Crumbley’s school for an in-person meeting to discuss concerns about his mental health and school personnel urged the Crumbleys to take their son out of school, neither parent told school officials about their gun purchase. Ethan Crumbley stayed in school and, shortly after the meeting, took his gun out of his backpack and began shooting.

As a general proposition, one is not responsible for the acts of others. And generally, parents are not criminally responsible for unforeseen things that their children do. But what if the child’s criminal act is foreseeable? And what if the parents don’t pay attention to warning signs, or worse, ignore them?

In Jennifer Crumbley’s case, significant evidence was presented of red flag warnings of Ethan Crumbley’s instability and her failure to react or seek help. The jury concluded that she was grossly negligent in her dealings with her son and that, under the circumstances, the deadly outcome of the shootings could have been foreseen.

Even though the facts in the Crumbley case are particularly damning, the case is a wake-up call for parental supervision and responsibility. That’s a good thing.

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