Investigation: Oxford schools district "failed" to keep students safe from shooter
Oxford Community School officials and staff “failed” to keep students safe from a school shooter who took the lives of four students and injured six others as well as a teacher nearly two years ago, according to a 572-page report released Monday night by the independent investigators commissioned by the district.
“The District was responsible for keeping Madisyn, Tate, Justin, Hana and all of the other [Oxford High School] survivors and students safe and secure at OHS on November 30, 2021, but failed to do so,” Guidepost Solutions wrote in the opening pages of its report, referring to the four students killed by school shooter Ethan Crumbley.
The report notes the ongoing criminal cases against the shooter and his parents, as well as civil cases against the district, but it focuses on what could have been done to prevent the carnage that shook Oxford High School.
"Our investigation has revealed that had proper threat assessment guidelines been in place and District threat assessment policy followed, this tragedy was avoidable,” the report concluded.
Crumbley, who was referred to only as “the Shooter” throughout the report, was not identified as a threat even though his “conduct, statements, and drawings suggested that he might cause physical harm at school,” the report found. That was because Oxford High School administrators and staff “failed to recognize” his behavior as a threat in accordance with guidelines adopted by the district.
The report laid significant responsibility for what it called a “breakdown” in threat assessment on then-Superintendent Timothy Throne, who did not authorize a deputy to oversee implementation of the district’s protocols. Staff were not aware of the “low threshold” for identifying potential threats, had not been trained on threat assessment, and were unaware of the form used to characterize and address threats, the report found.
Had the threat assessment procedures been deployed in accordance with district policy, the shooter’s behavior would have been elevated to the principal or school resource officer, who could have initiated a search of his belongings that would have prevented the attack, the report found. Instead, neither were told about the troubling behavior that resulted in Crumbley being sent to the guidance counselor’s office.
The report’s findings were based on what Guidepost called “full” access to evidence gathered by local police, as well as interviews with more than 100 witnesses, including victims and their families, current and former school board members, district administrators, school staff members, law enforcement officers, local prosecutors, and technology vendors. The report’s authors called their access to evidence from the Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office “arguably unprecedented.” That access came with the condition that the prosecutor's office could review the portions of the report that came solely from evidence in its investigative files to ensure that its inclusion “would not interfere with the ongoing criminal cases.” The prosecutor’s office made no redactions or objections to the information included, the report said.
A two year wait for answers
Less than a week after the deadly shooting, Oxford School Board unanimously passed a resolution to investigate systemic failures to prevent the carnage that claimed the lives of four students.
That resolution was followed by months of anguished appeals from Oxford High School students and parents to take stock of the security lapses that allowed for a sophomore to bring a gun to school and turn it on his peers.
The district attempted to stave off such an investigation until after the many criminal and civil lawsuits concluded, and declined multiple offers from Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel to look into systemic failures.
School staff were told not to cooperate with the independent investigation by their union. As reported by The Detroit News last September, a lawyer working with the Michigan Education Association told members to say the following when asked for interviews by Guidepost: “Because the district is involved in pending litigation, the district's attorneys have advised me not to make any unnecessary statements. Since this requested interview is voluntary, I decline based upon that advice.”
Cooperation by school staff increased in the first months of 2023, according to Guidepost, following the resignation of Superintendent Ken Weaver and two board members. In May, the investigating agency published a 179-page report on the district’s threat assessment policies and physical security infrastructure in place after the shooting.
The Oxford community has waited until now, however, for the independent assessment of what, specifically, went wrong before the attack, to allow a school shooting to shake their community nearly two years ago.
“The gun likely would have been found”
Crumbley was not thwarted from a plan to unleash violence on his peers that he meticulously outlined in a handwritten journal, even after he was sent to the guidance counselor’s office twice over concerning behavior in the days before his attack.
He was first referred to the counselor for looking up ammunition on his phone in the days leading up to the shooting, and then again after he scrawled a handgun and a bullet-riddled person along with the words “blood everywhere” and “help me” on a math assignment just before he unleashed a bloody rampage.
The journal in which he detailed his scheme to shoot up the school, as well as the handgun and bullets with which he would do it, were both in his backpack at the time – and carried into the guidance counselor’s office by Oxford’s dean of students, Nicholas Ejak, according to testimony at one of Crumbley’s court hearings.
“What do you have in here, bricks?” Crumbley recalled Ejak asking him at the time. Crumbley was recounting the day to a psychologist, Colin King, who later testified about the boy’s mental state at a hearing to determine whether he could face life without parole for the shooting.
If Ejak or Shawn Hopkins, a guidance counselor present at the meeting, had opened the bag, Crumbley told King, his plan would have fallen apart.
The report reached the same conclusion, noting that neither Ejak or Hopkins called for a search or elevated their concerns to the principal or an assistant principal who could have initiated the search: “Had the Shooter consented, the gun likely would have been found. Had the Shooter denied the request to search, that would have provided an additional data point from which the principal and school resource officer may have determined that reasonable suspicion supported a search.”
According to the district’s threat assessment policy, this conduct should have been elevated to the school principal or resource officer, who may have decided to request a “safety search” of the shooter’s possessions.
“Even if reasonable suspicion to conduct a search were a close call, conducting a search is supported by common sense when balancing the potential enormous harm that could occur with a student possessing a firearm in school against the minimal invasion of a student’s privacy interest,” the independent investigation said.
Instead of having his bag searched or being removed from school, Crumbley collected his things. He then went into a nearby men’s bathroom and took a gun from his bag. As soon as he walked into the hallway, he began firing at fellow students.
But beyond the blame lies responsibility.
The report also notes heroic actions by individuals who “saved lives … by responding quickly and decisively.” The authors credit them with preventing further calamity at the school. They include administrative assistant Melissa Williams, who called 911, and two assistant principals – Kristy Gibson-Marshall and Kurt Nuss – who walked the halls during the shooting to make sure students had gone into locked classrooms and gotten out of harm’s way.
The report focused blame on the shooter “who killed intentionally” and his parents who “recklessly supplied him” with the means to do so. “But beyond the blame lies responsibility,” the authors said.
The report places that responsibility “at every level of the District, from the Board to the Superintendent and his cabinet to the OHS administration and staff.”
“While we did not find intention, or callousness, or wanton indifference, we did find failure and responsibility by omission. In short, responsibility too often was denied and shifted elsewhere,” the authors wrote. “Taken together, when responsibility everywhere rests elsewhere, it rests nowhere."