DETROIT (CN) — A federal judge in Michigan ruled Friday that the Oxford school district, a counselor and the dean of students must face civil claims over their inaction leading up to a 2021 mass shooting because they may have "added fuel to the fire" by threatening to report the shooter's parents to authorities in front of him.
U.S. District Judge Mark A. Goldsmith, a Barack Obama appointee, held that Nicholas Ejak, the dean of students, and Shawn Hopkins, a counselor at Oxford High School, could be held liable along with the school district for the way they handled Ethan Crumbley when his increasingly disturbing behavior in class should have been addressed more delicately.
The defendants had argued that they were immune from state-created danger claims and said the plaintiffs – parents of victims in the Nov. 30, 2021, shooting – failed to state a procedural due process claim.
The lawsuit asserted that a school meeting held with Ethan and his parents James and Jennifer Crumbley just two hours before the shooting worsened the situation because Ejak and Hopkins both threatened to call child protective services and have the then-15-year-old removed from his home.
“It is plausible that a state official’s statements can increase the risk of harm by prompting a private sector to commit violence,” the judge wrote.
He added: “Plaintiffs have plausibly alleged that Hopkins and Ejak increased the risk that a mentally unstable teenager—suspected of harboring violent thoughts—would harm others when they threatened his parents with this imminent ultimatum in that teenager’s presence.”
However, Goldsmith also said that the discovery process would help clarify if Ejak and Hopkins acted with “callous disregard,” as the victims' families allege.
“Whether [plaintiffs] can substantiate that theory must await discovery, but at the pleading stage their allegations are sufficient to withstand dismissal,” he wrote.
Oxford High School Principal Steven Wolf and Timothy Throne, superintendent of Oxford Community Schools, were dismissed from the case since they were not alleged to have known about the combative meeting.
“Plaintiffs have not plausibly alleged that Wolf or Throne did anything to encourage, authorize, approve or acquiesce those actions,” Goldsmith wrote.
Crumbley’s former teachers who reported his behavior – Jackie Kubina, Allision Karpinski and Becky Morgan – were also dismissed from the case, along with Pam Fine, the restorative practices coordinator for Oxford schools.
The teen pleaded guilty in October to all 24 charges against him, including the first terrorism charges brought against a U.S. school shooting suspect. He will be sentenced in late July.
His parents learned their immediate fate recently when a state appeals court determined that involuntary manslaughter charges against them can stand.
The first parents of a school shooter to be charged with a crime related to the shooting, Jennifer and James Crumbley remain in custody as they fight the charges. Their attorneys filed appeals documents on Oct. 10 claiming they were innocent because they had nothing to do with the planned attack and are not “responsible for the deaths of others.”
The Michigan Court of Appeals disagreed in an order published in early March.
“[T]he defendants…provided him with the weapon used to kill the victims…and…refused to remove him from the situation that led directly to the shootings,” Judge Christopher M. Murray wrote for a unanimous three-judge panel.
The pair are scheduled to head to trial this summer.
The Oxford school district and board members were sued in state court for negligence in January 2022 but those complaints were recently dismissed by Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Mary Ellen Brennan, who concluded the district has governmental immunity from the claims.
Eight victims survived the massacre while three students were pronounced dead the day of the shooting and a fourth victim succumbed to his injuries the next morning.
Oxford, population 3,586, is in central Oakland County, about 40 miles north of Detroit.
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