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Prosecutor in Crumbley case says charging parents in school shootings is warranted


This week, James and Jennifer Crumbley made their first in-person appearance in court. They are the parents of Ethan Crumbley, the 15-year-old accused of killing four students at Oxford High School in Michigan, and they have each been charged with four counts of involuntary manslaughter. Now, charging the parents of a child who commits a school shooting is a rare move, but it is one that prosecutor Karen McDonald, who is the elected official in charge of the criminal case, one she says is warranted. Karen McDonald joins us now to talk more about it. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.


KELLY: Lay out for us why, why you believe it's warranted in this case to charge Jennifer and James Crumbley for the actions of their child?

MCDONALD: I approached this case as the prosecutor, but I also approached it like a mother. And the first question anyone asks is, where did this individual get a gun? And in this case, it went far beyond just the failure to properly secure a weapon. There was so much more on the part of these two parents that was just, in my view, criminally negligent.

KELLY: Is there one or two details that's lodged in your head as what definitively for you crosses the line and made it necessary to charge them?

MCDONALD: Yes. Mom posted on social media just four days before that - proudly that she had purchased a gun for her son as an early Christmas present. The parents were asked to come in based on some troubling writings that this individual made that were clearly signs that he was violent, potentially violent - pictures of guns, pictures of someone being shot, words like blood everywhere. They were asked to take their son home and they resisted. Both of them left, never told the school that he had full access to a weapon, which he clearly did.

And then when the news of the shooting occurred, dad rushed home to look for the gun, and after not finding it, called 911 and said, essentially, I think my son is the school shooter. And upon hearing it on mom's side, she texted her son, don't do it. So it's not just a failure to secure a gun. It's not just a failure not to notice what your kid is doing. It goes far beyond that. There were so many warning signs that he was potentially violent and would harm somebody. And these two individuals were the only people that had all of that knowledge, and they did nothing.

KELLY: You've laid out a lot of detail there, but I've seen you quoted as saying you did receive pushback from members of your own staff who thought that charging the parents might be risky. Do you acknowledge that there is some risk from just a legal strategy point of view in doing something that, as you say, has no or very little precedent?

MCDONALD: I absolutely acknowledge that it hasn't been done before, though I didn't know that at the time, and it actually - it wouldn't have altered my decision. I did receive pushback, but prosecutors don't like to do things for the first time, and they also don't like to do things that might result in a not guilty. But I wasn't elected to do the safe thing, and this is just far beyond politics to me. This was the right thing to do. And I don't think anyone looking at it, particularly what we know now, only some of which is public, could have decided to just allow those two individuals to move forward in their life and never have any consequences for the death of four children and seven more injured and hundreds of kids who will never be the same.

KELLY: I hear the prosecutor speaking, but also the mother. This case feels personal to you?

MCDONALD: Here's the thing. I've raised teenagers. I have so much compassion for parents who have kids that are struggling. I don't think we should hold parents criminally responsible for everything their son or daughter does. Of course not. I'm angry that this is 2021 in the United States of America, and we still have school shootings. And I think much of the rest of the world probably thinks it's absurd, and I do too, and I know so many people feel the same way. We can protect our kids and make sure they're safe and still allow people to own weapons and still allow people to parent their kids the way they want. But when you give somebody a deadly weapon that you have every reason to believe might harm somebody else, you should be held accountable.

KELLY: We've been speaking with Oakland County, Mich., prosecutor Karen McDonald about the decision to charge the parents of Ethan Crumbley, the 15-year-old accused of killing four students at Oxford High School in Michigan. Karen McDonald, thank you.

MCDONALD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
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