Why the Oxford Shooter’s Plea for Help Went Unanswered

Dec 8, 2021 12:00:00 AM


As more information on the events leading up to the Oxford school shooting came to light, journalists and the prosecutor in the case began publicly questioning the decision school counselors made to allow Ethan Crumbley to return to class. In a three-page letter to parents, district superintendent Tim Throne defended the counselors, saying they had “asked probing questions” regarding his potential for harm to self or others, and that because Crumbley “appeared calm” and had no disciplinary issues, they felt returning him to class was a better option than sending him “to an empty house.”

Over the weekend, I had the privilege of holding a conversation via Facebook comment thread dissecting the decision to return Crumbley to class. More than a dozen participants—teachers, parents, former school administrators, school and hospital-based social workers—offered their perspectives. Many involved expressed appreciation for the level of expertise, care and nuance in the conversation, especially given it took place on social media. 

Since very few people want to wade through an 85-comment Facebook thread, I am taking the liberty of distilling the comments and perspectives into a dialogue here. I’ll name my own comments and identify others’ viewpoints by their area of expertise.

Indiana parent/former therapist: This has been weighing on me so heavily. That kid was basically screaming for help. I wonder how many red flags his parents ignored over the years? … This case will definitely stand as an example of how parents and other adults can be held accountable for the actions of a minor.

Me: The parents are the fundamental problem here, but I can’t fathom how counselors would have thought their only options were to send him home with his parents or send him back to class. So many elementary schools are so much more thoughtful about how to be present to kids, even with the crazy schedules and assumptions baked into traditional school.

[Note: Here’s an example—before the pandemic I visited an elementary school on Chicago’s south side where, when kids needed a break, either because they were getting in conflict with other kids or having trouble paying attention or for whatever other reason, they were allowed to come to the principal’s office and use calming tools like kinetic sand and fidgets, or draw, and chat with the principal when they were ready. I grant this was a small elementary school and not a 1600-student high school like Oxford, but increasing numbers of schools are investing in sensory spaces and calming rooms where students can go if they need to.]

Former Delaware teacher, now homeschool parent: I worked as an interventionist in a middle school and I can’t imagine a situation like this ending with putting the child back in the classroom, especially on the same day. He literally asked for help and got nothing. I lost count of the times I was assigned a student to sit with in a quiet place, or take a walk around the track to get a student to re-center.

Former Delaware teacher/school administrator: Whenever I have had to make hard decisions like this one as an administrator, I always involved other staff. And I always included the school psychologist. We are all humans and miss the mark sometimes, especially when our minds are clouded by emotions or worry. It’s harder for me to understand how a team of people could miss this. [Note: According to the Oxford High School website, the school does have one psychologist on staff. I have yet to see a media report that says the psychologist was consulted.]

“Get Him into Therapy” Within 48 Hours Was Not Realistic and Emergency Mental Health Services Are Scarce

Indiana former therapist/parent: The school’s recommendation to “get him into therapy” within 48 hours shows a basic lack of understanding about how mental health services work. There is nowhere a kid can get outpatient services that quickly. And he needed immediate inpatient treatment anyway.

Illinois school social worker/adoptive parent: Thankfully, in Illinois, we have an immediate mental health resource for both schools and individuals. She linked to Screening, Assessment and Support Services (SASS). Like most mental health resources, it needs more funding and an expansion of available inpatient and outpatient services, but at least we have a base.

Illinois parent advocate familiar with IEPs and health systems: I’ve heard personal experiences of SASS being used inappropriately, say, for an autistic student or a student with other known disabilities having a meltdown or serious behavior challenges due to their known disabilities, not due to a psychiatric emergency. I think, like any service—say, DCFS [Illinois’ child welfare and protective agency]—it can be weaponized against certain populations of families. Not to say it isn’t a much-needed and useful service—just that it needs a helluva lot of training and supervision in its use.

Illinois hospital social worker who does ER crisis evaluations: While the school was completely unrealistic in expecting Ethan to access counseling within 48 hours … I wonder if a sense of hopelessness about the mental health system played into the school’s lackadaisical response. The fact is, even locked acute hospital units discharge kids within five days because of insurance. This isn’t enough time to make a difference.

Even with SASS or SASS-equivalent agencies, you can’t magically make pediatric psychiatrists appear. All of them have massive waitlists for new patients. You can’t make therapists, or intensive outpatient programs or residential treatment centers magically multiply so everyone can be served.

[pullquote]Michigan struggles with inadequate mental health services, and the situation for children’s mental health is especially dire.[/pullquote] The state is currently developing a settlement with parents who filed a class-action lawsuit over the lack of access to crisis mental health services. I’m sure the schools have experienced this, too. They’ve had kids bounce back to school after a 72-hour hold that did little good. They still should have called 911 immediately and had him taken to an ER. They never should have allowed him back to class. Don’t get me wrong. I’m just exploring what might have been behind such poor judgment.

Illinois teacher: I have seen young students struggle with really pervasive mental health issues. The lack of access to mental health services is sickening. Schools need to overhaul their approach to this. I have been in the situation of sounding the alarm, only to be told to “document” and “follow the process.” These kids need emergency help, but public education holds on too tightly to ineffective systems that take too long and breed mistrust between students, teachers and parents. Kids need emergency access to mental health care, especially after all the trauma of the pandemic.

“I Need This Conversation to Be a Both/And”

Michigan teacher: I need this to be a both/and conversation. Yes, our school system needs a complete overhaul when it comes to the mental health services readily available to students, which takes policy change, more funding, better training, etc. AND, this could not have taken place without access to a loaded gun.

Me: Absolutely! It is definitely a both/and!! I am glad the parents are being charged with involuntary manslaughter in part because they allowed their son easy access to a weapon. While I could wish for a lot more when it comes to gun control, we could start by holding gun owners much more accountable for gun safety in their own homes. In about 68% of gun incidents in schools, the gun came from the shooter’s own home or the home of a friend or relative. The NRA’s role in where we are is sickening.

Illinois social worker and parent: It shouldn’t be socially OK for a kid to be looking at ammunition [in school] and his parent to say, “Lol, just don’t get caught.” That’s a level of permission that screams MAGA and NRA and looks like a lot of the country these days.

Everyone downplayed his capacity for murder because gun culture is so normalized.

Me: Bingo! Schools tend to underestimate the severity of kids’ mental health problems all the time. They don’t know kids well; they focus on academics over social-emotional health; they are too busy/distracted and too few adults really know what to look for. Add gun culture and desensitization to violence, and we get school shootings.

Delaware former teacher/administrator: It is not rare, at all, for parents to refuse to do what the school recommends. Schools and students need far more support than they’re given. Not a little more. Heaps and heaps more. Until the larger community speaks up and demands more, things aren’t going to get better.

Some final thoughts, from me: It’s not an accident that white and affluent parents are able to just tell school staff no, they won’t do what the school recommends. It’s not an accident that Ethan Crumbley was sent back to class without even checking his backpack, while another Michigan boy, who happens to be Black and Indigenous, was strip-searched and isolated on suspicion he had a weapon—and he didn’t. [pullquote]We can’t ignore the cultural factors that led adults to miss a threat when it came in the body of a young, white boy.[/pullquote]

Maureen Kelleher

Maureen Kelleher is Editorial Director at Future Ed. She was formerly Editorial Partner at Ed Post and is a veteran education reporter, a former high school English teacher, and also the proud mom of an elementary student in Chicago Public Schools. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. Between 1998 and 2006 she was an associate editor at Catalyst Chicago, the go-to magazine covering Chicago’s public schools. There, her reporting won awards from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the International Reading Association and the Society for Professional Journalists.

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