Opinion | How Can Jennifer Crumbley Be Guilty of Her Son’s Rampage?


As the mother of a school shooter, Jennifer Crumbley must live with a reputation whose stains can never wash clean. Ms. Crumbley is now spending her days hunched in a Michigan courtroom, weeping at times as she listens to the testimony against her. The jurors may condemn her to prison, or they may absolve her, but she will always be a walking symbol of gun violence and bad parenting.

On Nov. 30, 2021, Ms. Crumbley’s 15-year-old son, Ethan Crumbley, drew a 9-millimeter semiautomatic handgun from his backpack and opened fire, killing four students and wounding seven people at Oxford High School. His parents had bought him the gun as an early Christmas present; his mother celebrated by taking him to a shooting range, an outing she called a “mom and son day.”

Both parents face charges of involuntary manslaughter; James Crumbley, Ethan’s father, will be tried later. Prosecutors argue that their indifference to their son’s collapsing mental health, even as they gave him access to the murder weapon, makes them criminally responsible for his attack. It’s a remarkable and unprecedented strategy.

Hundreds of mass shootings have struck American schools in recent decades, leading to prosecutions of the assailants and civil lawsuits against schools, administrators or parents. The Crumbleys are the first parents to face homicide charges for a school shooting by their child.

I’ve listened to hours of testimony, in the trial and in pretrial hearings, on the dynamics of the Crumbley family and the events leading up to the shooting at Oxford High School. The more I’ve heard, the less clearly I’ve understood the case against the parents. Ms. Crumbley doesn’t strike me as an insightful or affectionate mom — or even, perhaps, a very nice person. But she’s more complex than the monstrously callous and neglectful figure suggested by her dour mug shot and the few choice details about her personal life that have floated into the headlines. The case against the Crumbleys is more complicated than it sounds.

The prosecution of the parents seems to be motivated, at least partly, by the grief of a local community and the ambient desperation of a country trapped in the recurring nightmare of mass shootings.

Our politicians are ineffective; the courts don’t make headway; we can’t even agree on what’s causing the bloodshed. Parents are worn brittle by daily awareness that their children’s school could be next. We can’t fix the interlinked failures behind the slaughter — but we can sue schools and parents and, now, we can drag the unsympathetic Crumbleys into criminal court. We crave villains to blame, a case to try, something tangible to do. Maybe, at least, it will make us feel better.

Some victims and survivors have managed to win damages in civil lawsuits against parents. These cases are often championed by anti-gun-violence groups looking to make an example of carelessness.

“I do think it has a deterrent effect,” said Alla Lefkowitz, a lawyer with Everytown for Gun Safety who has represented survivors against shooters’ parents, gun stores and manufacturers. “Nobody wants to be involved in a lawsuit like this.”

An involuntary manslaughter conviction, however, requires much harder evidence. Prosecutors need to prove that the Crumbleys knew there was real danger of their son attacking his schoolmates but were indifferent to that result and wantonly neglected to intervene.

“We are approaching the parents with one of the highest charges in our criminal system, which can lead to the loss of liberty for extended periods of time, based on the conduct of their teenaged son,” said Eve Brensike Primus, the director of the Public Defender Training Institute at the University of Michigan Law School. “A layperson thinks, ‘OK, you should’ve known better.’ But that’s not the criminal standard.”

I don’t know how the full trial will play out but, from all I’ve seen, I’m not convinced the Crumbleys had any idea or any way to know that their son was likely to kill.

One outstanding oddity of this case: Ethan Crumbley was charged as an adult. He pleaded guilty on all 24 counts, including first-degree murder, and was sentenced to life with no possibility of parole. During his sentencing, he insisted that nobody could possibly have known about his plan and specified that his parents should not be blamed. “I’m a really bad person,” he told the court.

Prosecuting children as adults is a particular obscenity in our criminal system; it is my firm (albeit unpopular) opinion that no children, no matter what they did, should be condemned to a life of punishment with zero possibility for rehabilitation — but that’s an argument for another day.

There is a logical contradiction in the state declaring Ethan Crumbley an adult — with full responsibility for his crime — while prosecuting his parents for gross negligence in child care. Ethan Crumbley was a child, or he wasn’t. He was responsible for his actions, or his parents were. Can the state argue both positions at once? Prosecutors insist they can.

While the parents have been excoriated for giving him access to the gun, this is something of a legal dead end. Michigan, at the time of the shooting, did not have a safe-storage gun law on the books. (It does now.) The Crumbleys were not legally obliged to keep the weapon locked away from their son.

Prosecutors, then, have tried to build a case from the vagaries of the family’s interactions as reconstituted from text messages, Facebook exchanges, and the testimony of acquaintances, who, so far, haven’t seemed to have known the Crumbleys very well, or have liked them very much.

The Crumbleys had their share of problems. We can puzzle over the true meaning of the fragments of family life in the evidence, but all we really know is this: Ethan Crumbley was depressed and struggling. Everything else, in the end, is open to interpretation. The vagueness at the heart of this case is not unlike the emotional haze that clouds our national response to gun violence: It’s more about feelings and perception, about finding somebody to blame, than about clear-cut criminal intent or meaningful reform.

James Crumbley was between jobs at the time of the shooting and had been driving deliveries for DoorDash. The family needed Ms. Crumbley’s salary from a real estate company, but she complained to her husband that she hated the job. Their marriage had recently foundered, with reports of infidelity from both spouses; as the first sentence of a Detroit Free Press article put it, “Jennifer Crumbley was having an affair while her son battled loneliness and often snuck off with her lover during breaks from work.”

Aside from the suggestive tone, which seems to imply an extramarital dalliance meant she couldn’t have been a good mother, there has also been much discussion of her fondness for horses. Kira Pennock, a Michigan stable owner, testified about the two horses Ms. Crumbley boarded. (She’d started out with one and bought a second horse online for $5,000 during a night of drinking, Ms. Pennock said.) Prosecutors have lingered over the time and money the Crumbleys lavished on their equestrian hobby — $400 a month per horse to board and feed, several visits to the stables every week for paid lessons, veterinary expenses.

The implication, of course, is that Ms. Crumbley cared more about her horses than about her son.

“Gonna get drunk and ride my horse,” she texted her husband one March afternoon in 2021, after what she described as a bad day at work. This particular quote is now evidence against Ms. Crumbley; it comes from a much-analyzed exchange that took place eight months before the shooting. Later that day, around 6 p.m., Ethan Crumbley texted his mother to complain that the house was haunted. He was home alone, and he was scared.

“I got some videos. And a picture of the demon,” he texted his mother. “It is throwing BOWLS.”

“Can you at least text back?” he wrote about 25 minutes later.

Ms. Crumbley didn’t reply. She is believed to have been at the horse farm, where connectivity was spotty.

Some kind of domestic trouble erupted over those few days in March 2021. The Crumbleys, two days later, exchanged messages about how Ethan Crumbley had been “really worked up and out of control” the night before; they described giving him melatonin to calm him down. There is also a suggestion that he had been disciplined by losing access to some of his “stuff.”

“All I know is he needs to eat, go to work, and work hard, not complain and he can get his stuff back,” Ms. Crumbley wrote.

The next day Ethan Crumbley was home alone again, apparently tasked with tidying.

“I finished picking up the room. I cleaned until the clothes started flying off the shelf,” he texted his mother. “This stuff only happens when I’m home alone.”

These messages are the strongest evidence prosecutors have offered that Ethan Crumbley told his parents he was experiencing severe mental health symptoms. There are disturbing texts from him to his only friend, complaining that he needed help, that his parents wouldn’t take him to a doctor and that Ms. Crumbley thought he was on drugs and “doesn’t worry about my mental health.” But there’s no indication his parents ever saw those texts, nor is there any way to assess their accuracy.

The demon text is different. Prosecutors say it proves that Ethan Crumbley told his mother he was having hallucinations and that Ms. Crumbley shrugged him off. That’s a plausible reading.

Or maybe Ethan Crumbley, a lonely child in a turbulent household, felt pressured and upset by his parents’ fighting; maybe he mentioned demons and haunted houses because he wanted attention or hoped they’d stop leaving him home alone; maybe he had a bad dream or a lurid waking fantasy that he presented as reality. Maybe, in the strange storms of hormones and unfamiliar emotions that typify adolescence, he could not have explained what he was saying to his mother, or why.

The demon text, above the other oddly harsh comments in her communications, swings sympathy against Ms. Crumbley. Who hears her son claiming to see a demon and then opts against taking him to therapy?

But after that, as far as we know, eight months passed without any major red flags.

That’s not to say things were going well. Ethan Crumbley’s friend left school. His grandmother died, and so did the family dog. He struggled with anxiety and isolation while distance learning during the pandemic. His mother described him as “weird.”

But Ethan Crumbley didn’t get into trouble at school, where he had solid attendance and had been on track to graduate on time. There’s no indication that he fought with other students, creeped out his teachers or acted up in class.

So discordant was Ethan Crumbley’s image with our notions of a school shooter, it seems, that Kristy Gibson-Marshall, an Oxford High School assistant principal, testified to her shock at seeing him carrying the gun during the attack. She was so stunned, she told the jury, that she couldn’t process what she was seeing.

“It just didn’t seem right that it would be him,” said Ms. Gibson-Marshall. “It was when I realized it was Ethan that I didn’t think he could possibly be the shooter.” She went on: “It seemed so odd that it would be him, so I said, ‘Buddy, are you OK? What’s going on?’ When he didn’t respond to me and he looked away, that’s when I knew it was him. That he was the shooter.”

Finally, there is the question of the gun. With Christmas approaching and their son’s spirits still slumped, the Crumbleys bought their son a new gun. This proved to be a ruinously irresponsible gift. We now know that Ethan Crumbley had secretly been waiting for just this moment to carry out the attack he’d described in his journal. In the minds of his parents, though, the gun seems to have been a ham-handed effort to cheer him up.

Even in the early hours after the shooting, during the Crumbleys’ first talk with the police — a video of the encounter was shown this week at trial — two points came across: First, the parents appeared to be legitimately stunned to discover their child was suffering from anything beyond sadness. He was a “perfect kid” who never got into trouble, Mr. Crumbley said. Asked whether he had any school suspensions or run-ins with the law, both Crumbleys exclaimed, “No, nothing.”

Firearms recreation may be repugnant to some, but it is neither illegal nor unusual. This disconnect — the different ways in which different jurors may regard the gun itself — could end up shaping the Crumbleys’ fate.

“A lot of your cultural priors about guns and the ownership of guns will really inform whether you think these parents did something wrong,” Ms. Primus of the University of Michigan told me.

During oral arguments last year, before the Michigan Court of Appeals unanimously ruled that the state could try the parents, Judge Michael J. Riordan sounded troubled by this problem.

“There’s nothing wrong with being interested in guns or letting children shoot. Heck, all these American Legion halls throughout the state have shooting classes for kids. So what’s the precedent we’re going to set here?” asked Judge Riordan.

“There are a lot of families with kids who might not be as stable as the parents would like them to be,” he added. “Is it, the kid bullied at school comes home complaining about that? Lock up all the guns. Is it, the kid seems down? Make sure the kid doesn’t go to school. What message are we going to send with this case?”

Unambiguous signs of crisis flared in the 24 hours before Ethan Crumbley attacked. But the adults around him — not just his parents but the school officials trained to spot danger — grievously underreacted.

The day before the shooting, he was sent to the school counselor for researching ammunition on his phone during class. “Compliant, calm, understanding,” is how a school counselor, Shawn Hopkins, during a pretrial hearing described Ethan Crumbley’s behavior that day. Ethan Crumbley told the counselor that he and his mother had recently visited a rifle range and that shooting was a hobby, Mr. Hopkins testified. The school called Ms. Crumbley, who scolded her son by text but added, in an apparent attempt at lightheartedness, “You have to learn to not get caught.”

The following school day, Ethan Crumbley was once again sent to the counselor. During class, he’d been watching a violent video depicting shooting and had covered a geometry worksheet with pictures of a gun and a bleeding body, writing “my life is useless,” “the thoughts won’t stop, help me” and “blood everywhere.” Mr. Hopkins had been persuaded the day before that Ethan Crumbley was fine, but now he got worried, he testified — not that Ethan Crumbley would hurt others but that he might be having suicidal ideas.

The Crumbleys were called again, and both parents drove to school, where Mr. Hopkins warned them that Ethan Crumbley might be a danger to himself and should not be left alone. The counselor told them it was urgent they take their son to a therapist — that very day, if possible, but certainly within the next 48 hours.

During the meeting, the period ended, and students milled around switching classes. At that point Nicholas Ejak, the dean of students, fetched Ethan Crumbley’s backpack from a classroom, carried it to the administrative offices and handed it over to him. None of them, neither the parents nor the school officials, looked inside the bag. Had they done so, they’d have seen his gun.

Survivors and family members of the shooting victims are fighting in court for the right to sue the school, which has so far been shielded by Michigan’s government immunity laws.

Mr. Hopkins, the counselor, testified in pretrial hearings that he found the parents strange during the meeting. They didn’t hug their son, he said — not when they arrived and not when they left. He was also surprised they didn’t take their son home from school right away.

The Crumbleys, however, appear to have been focused on the advice that Ethan Crumbley shouldn’t be left alone. Ms. Crumbley’s texts to Ms. Pennock, the stable owner, describe plans to bring him with her that night while her husband worked; she specifically mentioned that the boy must not be alone. Both parents had to work that afternoon, and their son didn’t like missing school, so keeping him in class for the rest of the day might have looked like the most practical option.

And so Ethan Crumbley was turned loose yet again into the school. A short time later, his mother texted to ask if he was OK.

“You know you can talk to us,” she wrote to her son.

“IK thank you,” he replied. “I’m sorry for that. I love you.”

He ducked into a bathroom, pulled out his gun and headed out into the hallway to murder his schoolmates. The first bullet was fired about 10 minutes after his last text to his mother. It was a crime like countless others — a familiar choreography in a country that has decided it can’t do anything about guns. All we can do, it seems, is punish the people we can reach and go to sleep at night hoping that will somehow help to stem the violence.

Source photographs: Pool photo by Mandi Wright and Jake May/The Flint Journal, via Associated Press

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