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Oxford shooting exposes limits, mental health needs for schools

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OXFORD, Mich. — Experts say a drawing that a teacher found ahead of a deadly shooting at Oxford High School suggested accused shooter Ethan Crumbley was suicidal, not a danger to others, and it’s likely why school counselors chose not to involve the police before four students were killed.

Crumbley’s case, they contend, exposes the limits schools face on mental health concerns involving students and the insufficient protocols on when and how they can or should seek help.

A key concern among investigators and prosecutors after the shooting was why the decision was made to allow the teen to remain in school.

A 2017 state school discipline law mandates expulsions for three offenses — possessing a dangerous weapon, arson or criminal sexual conduct. The state also requires that local districts consider restorative practices in punishments — analyzing seven factors, including a student’s age, disability status, disciplinary history and the seriousness of the violation before suspending or expelling a student.

Suspensions and expulsions by Michigan schools and the arrest of adolescents for making false school threats spiked after the Nov. 30 deadly rampage at the Oakland County school.

The issue remains a concern as students continue to attend in-person class, while other districts conducting virtual classes such as Detroit intend to return to in-person instruction when COVID-19 cases subside.

Court filings detailed the drawings that landed the high school sophomore in the office in the hours before the Nov. 30 shootings.

The first, depicting a gun, a bullet and a bleeding shooting victim, was captured via screenshot by a concerned teacher who alerted a school counselor. Hand-written notes alongside the drawing read: “My life is useless,” “Blood everywhere” and “The thoughts won’t stop, help me.”

A drawing was allegedly later modified by the teen to remove the weapon and ammunition and those comments in favor of “OHS rocks!” and “I love my life so much!!!”

Oxford Superintendent Tim Throne has said Crumbley’s parents “flatly refused” to take their son home after discussing the note with school officials and being told they had 48 hours to get him into mental health treatment or they would file a report with Child Protective Services. Crumbley was allowed to remain in school, and the shooting followed.

Dr. Carolyn Stone, ethics chair of the American School Counselors Association, told The Detroit News that if school officials viewed Ethan as suicidal, it limited their response to his alleged behaviors. Disciplinary matters, she noted, provide schools with more options, including a student’s removal.

“There must have been an overwhelming understanding,” Stone said, that the school counselors “were looking at suicide.”

“You can’t say to a parent that because your child is suicidal, they’re no longer eligible for a free public education until you get an evaluation,” said Stone, who also is a professor at the University of North Florida. “What the counselor couldn’t do is peer into his head and heart.”

Oxford Community Schools has not responded to requests for interviews. Throne has defended the district’s actions and contended “no discipline was warranted” for Crumbley.

Schools lack escalation ‘thresholds’

Schools need to have “thresholds” to determine when to escalate a situation to law enforcement or to mental health resources outside of the school, said Dr. Steve Brock, a professor and the school psychology program coordinator in the College of Education at California State University, Sacramento.

“There’s no profile that we can deploy and screen to figure out, ‘Who’s going to be the next person to hurt themselves, or someone else?’” Brock said. “We look at observable, concrete behaviors. That includes writings and drawings. And those clearly signal the need for an investigation — a risk assessment of some sort.”

Brock said school leaders at the district level need “pre-established connections to 24/7 resources” beyond what a school itself can offer.

“That kid is not OK just because school ends or it’s the weekend,” Brock said.

Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard expressed dismay that police weren’t notified of Crumbley’s alleged drawings, or called when a teacher sent him to the school office a day before the shooting after he was allegedly found searching on his phone for ammunition.

Ralph Godbee — former police chief of the Detroit school district and, before that, Detroit’s police chief — agrees, contending “a tool was missed” in the high school’s response.

A police officer, Godbee noted, “can be the affiant on a petition to have someone committed for 72 hours for observation if they’re suffering from some type of mental health crisis.”

Rather than give the Crumbleys 48 hours to get their son treated, as the school did, the 72-hour observation period could have begun immediately, he said, if an officer had chosen.

But Stone said it wouldn’t typically be appropriate for a police officer to sit in on a meeting with a suicidal student.

“There was nothing scribbled on that math sheet to negate suicidal ideation,” Stone said. “He was talking about himself. He had someone bleeding, with two bullet holes. He wrote ‘help me.’”

‘My job is to keep him in school’

Brock said the prospect of a psychological commitment is not to be taken lightly, especially if it’s involuntary, and without the support of the family.

“Sending a kid who has fleeting thoughts to a locked ward can be traumatizing,” Brock said.

And sending a suicidal student home alone would be negligent, Stone noted.

If parents refuse to take action, Stone said, a school counselor can threaten to file a negligence report, as an Oxford High School staff member threatened to do if Crumbley’s parents didn’t get him evaluated.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel sent a letter in October to the state’s public school principals and superintendents reminding them that the law requires them to consider all options before suspending or expelling a student. She cited a “critical need” for restorative practices in schools, a method that emphasizes repairing the harm to the victim and the school community caused by a pupil’s misconduct as an alternative to suspension.

Oxford’s code of conduct also encourages alternatives to suspensions and expulsions.

Rick Joseph, a Birmingham Public Schools fifth/sixth grade teacher, was Michigan’s Teacher of the Year in 2015-16 and sits on the Michigan School Safety Commission.

As a teacher, Joseph said he agrees with the school’s decision to allow Crumbley back into the classroom that day.

“He’s a 15-year-old boy,” Joseph said. “My job is to keep him in school, not send him home.”

Joseph continued: “I don’t think I would have done anything differently. That’s what makes the situation so utterly and horribly tragic.”

While vowing to prosecute legitimate school threats “to the fullest extent of the law” — false report or threat of terrorism carries a 20-year prison sentence in Michigan — Macomb County Prosecutor Pete Lucido said has said he’s worried school officials will prematurely be calling in police on school disciplinary matters that don’t merit an officer’s involvement.

“You’re almost setting up now every administrator and school employee to have the cops go ahead and handle such situations,” Lucido told The News. “Why? That exonerates them from any possibility of culpability.”

Crumbley, 15, is charged with 24 counts, including first-degree murder and terrorism in the attack. His parents, Jennifer and James Crumbley, are charged with four counts of involuntary manslaughter. The defense team for Crumbley’s parents has argued that they had locked up the 9 mm Sig Sauer handgun allegedly used in the shooting and did not know their son posed a danger.

Oxford Community Schools is facing a pair of $100 million lawsuits tied to the shooting.

Zero tolerance

Oxford schools officials last month announced a zero-tolerance approach for student discipline. School officials have come under scrutiny for letting Crumbley back into the school population after questioning him about the violent drawing.

Jill Lemond, an assistant superintendent in Oxford schools, has said the policy means any student making any violent threats or creating violent imagery in school would be immediately removed, and administrators and the school resource officer would be immediately notified.

The student could only return after a third-party mental health review is completed, Lemond said.

District spokeswoman Danielle Stublensky has noted that zero tolerance on threats or weapons in schools is already a board policy, and it’s now being applied to violent content.

‘No easy formula’

Experts say threat assessments should be handled by a multidisciplinary team comprised of a social worker, a school official and law enforcement, at minimum.

Michael Dorn, executive director of Safe Havens International, said those teams will catch things that police, or social workers, or school officials miss when working alone.

Safe Havens International has consulted on many high-profile school rampages, including the February 2018 shooting in Parkland, Florida, in which 17 students were killed.

“What we recommend is a formal structure, and a trained threat assessment and management process,” Dorn said.

An individual safety plan, including periodic backpack checks, should also be crafted for the student, added Peri Stone-Palmquist, executive director of the Student Advocacy Center of Michigan.

“The question is, what actually does create safety?” Stone-Palmquist said. “How do we create more connection for the kids and keep them close?”

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