By the NJPSA Legal Department and LEGAL ONE
The recent school shooting in Michigan is a tragic reminder of the dangers schools face today. It is also a reminder of why it is so important to continually review with your staff your school’s protocols and district policies that are designed to help districts to both prepare and to the extent possible, prevent events like what recently happened in Michigan.
Unfortunately, each tragedy has its own lessons. To understand those lessons, it is important to look to see what the Michigan school officials did leading up to the shooting and how their actions compare to your own policies.
What we know at this juncture is from news accounts that have been reported. As there are numerous investigation now underway, the facts as they have been reported may change. With this said, at this time we know the following:
- On November 29, 2021, a teacher saw the student viewing images of bullets on his cell phone while in class.
- This led to a meeting with the student and a counselor on the same day to discuss what he was doing and why. The student’s response was that sports shooting was a family hobby.
- The student’s parents were immediately called. However, the school representative making the call could only leave a message.
- The student apparently was allowed to return to class.
- The following day, November 30, 2021 another teacher observed a drawing by the student that raised concerns. The drawing featured images of a gun, a person who was shot, a laughing emoji, the words “blood everywhere,” and then the words, “the thoughts won’t stop. Help me.”
- After seeing this, the teacher notified the counselors and the dean of students.
- The student was immediately removed from the classroom and taken to the guidance counselor’s office where he said that the drawing was part of a video game he was designing.
- The student’s parents were again called.
- Because they could not immediately be reached, the student sat in the office for about an hour and a half while the counselors waited for the parents to arrive.
- Once his parents appeared, according to the statement from the superintendent, the student was asked “specific probing questions” regarding his intentions and potential harm to others. The student’s reply was that he did not intend to harm anyone.
- According to the news accounts, the student did not have a disciplinary record.
- The superintendent reported that, based on the student’s responses and calm demeanor at the meeting of November 30, the counselors who were present did not believe that the student posed a harm to others.
- This notwithstanding, it was recommended that the student receive counseling. His parents were told that they had 48 hours to seek counseling for their child or the school would contact Children’s Protective Services, Michigan’s version of the New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCP&P).
- The parents were then asked to take their child home, but they refused. They then left, apparently to return to work.
- Because the student had not had any prior disciplinary infractions as well as the counselor’s assessment that he did not pose a danger, the decision was made to send him back to class, as opposed to sending him home to an empty house.
- According to the School District Superintendent, the counselors made their decision based on their training and clinical experience.
- The parents of the student never advised the school officials with whom they met that they had purchased a gun for their 15 year-old child or that he had access to it.
- The decisions reached at the meetings with the student were not reported to the principal or the assistant principal.
- It was after this meeting that the student entered a bathroom and took a gun apparently from his back pack and proceeded to go on a shooting rampage.
As stated at the outset of this advisory, the facts as they have been reported may change depending on what is revealed by the on-going investigations. But, nonetheless, based on what we know, it’s important to examine the actions taken by the school officials at the Oxford High School, to see what issues or questions they raise. Some of those questions include the following:
- Did school officials call the student’s parents more than once after the initial meeting with the student on November 29?
- Who, if anyone, was informed of the meeting of November 29?
- Why was the student allowed to return to class either on November 29 or on November 30 without having had a discussion with the student’s parents?
- On November 30, after the teacher reported the disturbing drawing and the words “blood everywhere” and the “thoughts won’t stop, help me,” the student was taken from the class and brought to the office where he remained for about an hour and a half while the school officials waited for his parents to arrive. What if anything was done during this period?
- If the principal or the assistant principal were not notified, as has been reported, why not? What do the district’s policies or protocols require in terms of who is to be notified?
- It was reported that the student and his parents were asked “specific probing questions.” Did this include whether the student had access to any weapons?
- While it was reported that the student stated to the counselors that he did not intend to harm anyone, was the student asked why he wrote the words on the drawing “blood everywhere” and “thoughts won’t stop, help me.”
- Given that the parents were asked to take the student home and that the situation was serious enough to require that the student undergo counseling within 48 hours or that a referral would be made to Child Protective Services, and taking into account the parents’ alleged refusal to take their child home, why was the student nevertheless allowed to return to class, apparently unobserved? Why wasn’t the student required to stay in the office or placed in a room where he could be observed until the end of the school day?
- Who did the counselors confer with when they determined that the student could be sent back to class, notwithstanding their decision that he needed to undergo an evaluation within 48 hours?
- Was the student’s teacher for that period notified about what had occurred and that the student would be returning to class?
- Before deciding to send the student back to class, did the counselors confer with the teacher who witnessed the cell phone incident the prior day?
- Given the student’s statements, “blood everywhere” and “thoughts won’t stop” made on the drawing seen on November 30, coupled with the cell phone image of a bullet seen the prior day, should a call have been made to the police and/or to mental health professionals?
Certainly, there are more questions to be asked. While there are no easy answers as to why these school shooting incidents occur, that they do occur requires the whole school community to be vigilant.
What should schools do to manage threats to safety? First and foremost, all threats must be taken seriously. Practically, this means that school safety must be repeatedly reinforced to students, parents, law enforcement, teachers, counselors, support staff, administrators, and anyone else having information that might touch on or concern school safety. The United States Department of Homeland Security tells us in no uncertain terms, “If you see something, say something.”
Overall, seeking relevant information is the most significant mitigating intervention that can keep schools safe. What forms of information are relevant and important to keep schools safe? At the most basic level, all known threats to individuals or to the school that are observed within the school, on social media, or which are obtained from word of mouth should be examined immediately. To the extent that circumstances require, the information should be shared with the school’s crisis team and/or with law enforcement or mental health professionals. Policies adopted by the district should be a guide for such interventions and, in the face of an emergency, should provide a go-to structure for acting on and communicating a response during an actual emergency.
Long before an actual emergency presents itself, other forms of information and interventions related to any potentially at-risk students or other members of the school community should be monitored, and as required, acted upon by school employees. In particular, child study teams and counseling teams should be involved when academic and social and emotional concerns arise. If substance abuse is an issue, a student assistance counselor is a key resource. If there is a violation of law, or suspected violation, the Memorandum of Understanding between law enforcement and schools should guide the flow of relevant information to address any potential crime that may touch or concern any individual or the school community, on or off campus. Furthermore, strictly adhering to the reporting requirements related to abuse and neglect is another important area that protects individuals and schools.
Regrettably, this latest school shooting is not an isolated incident. It is important to learn from prior experiences and the trends that have emerged. For information on what we can learn from recent shootings and averted shootings, please review the 2019 report and 2021 report from the U.S. Secret Service. One disturbing finding from the 2019 report, which examined school shootings and other acts of targeted violence that occurred between 2008 and 2017, was that “in two-thirds of the attacks, there was at least one communication by the attacker about his or her intent to attack, or another observed threatening behavior, to which there was not a response.” The report indicates a wide range of reasons why students and staff failed to act, but the report should be a wake-up call that we need to ensure all stakeholders recognize the urgency to report such threats.
In summary, protecting the school community is everyone’s responsibility. There is no one size fits all approach, and there is no way to predict or plan for all contingencies. While nothing is full proof, understanding district’s policies whose purpose is to keep schools safe, coupled with an effective and thorough means for decisively investigating alleged threats to school safety and intervening when necessary is paramount to make as certain as possible that tragedies like the recent one in Michigan are prevented.