Parents sentenced, principal charged with failing to prevent shootings: A new strategy

In Virginia, an assistant principal is charged with child abuse after failing to intervene before a 6-year-old shot his first grade teacher.

In Michigan, a couple is sentenced to a decade in prison for failing to stop their 15-year-old son from gunning down four high-school classmates.

And in Illinois, a father pleads guilty to reckless misconduct after his son killed seven people at a Fourth of July parade.

The cases represent a new level weapon in the country's battle against gun violence: prosecutors. New legal approaches are widening the scope of accountability from those who pull triggers to include educators, parents and others who fail to report red flags. Prosecutors are increasingly taking aim at people who could have taken steps before innocent victims were maimed or killed.

"As far as I know, this is really groundbreaking," said James Ellenson, a lawyer for Deja Taylor, the mother of the 6-year-old boy who shot his teacher in Virginia, speaking about the criminal charges against the school official in the case. A special grand jury released a report Wednesday outlining failures by the school administration.

For decades, parents of school shooting victims and gun control advocates have looked to Congress to pass legislation that would prevent mass shootings by regulating firearms. But those proposals have largely failed amid backlash from gun rights advocacy and special interest groups, conservative lawmakers and American gun owners. Now, prosecutors are stepping in.

And while it is still rare for the parents or guardians of a shooting suspect to be charged, the successful outcome of the prosecutions could encourage other prosecutors to pursue similar cases, legal experts told USA TODAY.

Eric Johnson, a criminal law professor at the University of Illinois College of Law, said it's too early to tell, but he said the cases against the parents in Michigan – where father James Crumbley gave his son a gun – could make gunowners think twice about their liability.

"Generally I think the cases are a step in the right direction," Johnson said. "If you are reckless or criminally negligent in providing someone access to a firearm and that person winds up killing someone, I don’t think you shouldn’t be held liable."

Grand jury report reveals school administration failures in Virginia shooting

A scathing report by a special grand jury released Wednesday detailed former Assistant Principal Ebony Parker’s criminal liability in the Virginia case, where a 6-year-old boy shot and seriously wounded teacher Abby Zwerner in a classroom of 15 children.

“Dr. Parker’s lack of response and initiative given the seriousness of the information she had received on January 6, 2023 is shocking,” the report reads. It says Parker is responsible for making “poor decisions” regarding the child’s behavior.

The report blames Parker for not providing the child with behavioral resources sooner and dismissing Zwerner's safety concerns. Parker committed "a willful act or omission in the care of such students” that was “so gross, wanton, and culpable as to show a reckless disregard for human life," according to an indictment.

During the 2021-2022 school year, the child exhibited many behavioral problems, according to the grand jury report. In an incident on Sept. 27, 2021, the child allegedly choked his kindergarten teacher “so hard she couldn’t breathe,” the report says.

Over his kindergarten year, the boy also would occasionally hit a counselor, kick and spit on a teacher assistant, and brag about smoking his mother’s marijuana, according to the report.

But administrators at the school failed to initiate a “Functional Behavioral Assessment or Behavior Intervention Plan” during this time despite school counselors having to frequently help the boy’s kindergarten teacher with his behavior, the report says. Instead, administrators sent the child back to preschool at a different school.

Several security issues were also not addressed or were dismissed by administrators – including the school building’s door buzzer system that was broken for weeks before the shooting and later slowed down police response, according to the report.

On the day of the shooting, the report accuses Parker of ignoring multiple warnings that the boy was carrying a gun and that he had been in a “violent mood.”

The report says that Parker "did not respond ... did not acknowledge Zwerner’s presence" when the teacher reported the child’s behavior that day. When concerns were raised that the gun may have been in the boy’s pocket, Parker said the boy had “little pockets” and took no further action, the report says.

Zwerner was sitting at a reading table during class when the boy removed his hand from his pocket and opened fire at her, according to the report.

“The child continued to stare at her, not changing his emotional facial expression as he tried to shoot again,” the report says. “The firearm had jammed due to his lack of strength on the first shot, inhibiting him from shooting Ms. Zwerner or anyone else again. The firearm had a full magazine with seven additional bullets ready to fire if not for the firearm jamming.”

A group from Highland Park, Ill., rallies at the U.S. Capitol  July 13 to call for stronger gun control measures, including universal background checks and an assault weapons ban.
A group from Highland Park, Ill., rallies at the U.S. Capitol July 13 to call for stronger gun control measures, including universal background checks and an assault weapons ban.

Everytown for Gun Safety: 'We have reached an inflection point'

At least one other person knew about the shooter's plans but failed to report it in 4 out of 5 school shootings, according to Sandy Hook Promise, an advocacy group that grew out of a 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, that claimed the lives of 20 children and 6 adults.

"We have reached an inflection point in recognizing that we all have something to do with keeping our communities safe from gun violence," said Nick Suplina, a senior vice president for law and policy at Everytown for Gun Safety.

An analysis by researchers with the National Institute of Justice shows that 80% of people who committed school shootings used a firearm belonging to a family member. An analysis by the same group shows that in the six mass school shootings and 39 attempted mass school shootings in the two decades between 1999 and 2019, more than 9 in 10 shooters were current or former students at the school.

Where have Americans been held liable for a shooting

Other cases where parents or school staff were criminally charged with failing to prevent or intervene in a mass shooting include:

  • Separate juries and a judge found Michigan parents Jennifer Crumbley and James Crumbley responsible for at least part of the 2021 killings at Oxford High School. Their son shot and killed four high school students at the high school. Prosecutors accused the couple of buying their son the murder weapon as a Christmas present and ignoring that he was troubled. They were both found guilty of four counts of involuntary manslaughter this year and sentenced to 10 to 15 years in prison on Tuesday. They are the first parents of a mass school shooter in the U.S. to be convicted of involuntary manslaughter.

  • In Highland Park, Illinois, the father of a man charged with killing seven people at a Fourth of July parade in 2022 pleaded guilty for failing to prevent the victims' deaths.

Assistant principal charged With felony child abuse in 6-year-old's shooting of teacher

Previous gun control attempts have failed. Could these criminal charges be a new form of accountability?

The Crumbley case could signal to prosecutors that cases could be brought against parents and caregivers, particularly in the 26 states that have laws requiring safe storage of firearms, Suplina said.

Daniel Webster, a distinguished research scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions, said that it remains to be seen whether the Crumbleys' fate will impact future cases.

"The circumstances surrounding this tragedy were quite unique and stark," he said. "The level of neglect and parental behavior and decision-making appeared to be quite relevant" to the outcomes of the parents' cases. But he added that "how frequently those acts will align in future cases is hard to know."

Dudley Brown, president of the National Association for Gun Rights, agreed that the Crumbley case could set a precedent.

"Our big concern is that we get away from placing responsibility on the person who pulled the trigger," he said. "Yes, with the parents or guardians of a true minor, the parents should be responsible."

Parents of the victims of prior mass shootings told USA TODAY they hope the outcome of the Michigan case is one step closer to accountability.

Tony Montalito's daughter's life was taken by a mass school shooter at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland on Feb. 14, 2018. The sadness of the tragic day remains, but on the day a jury found Jennifer Crumbley guilty of involuntary manslaughter, Montalito said he felt some hope for the future of gun control.

"Holding people accountable for their roles in not actively trying to get troubled individuals help before they commit acts of violence will send a strong message," Montalito said. "It shows how we all need to come together as parents, students and teachers."

Contributing: N'dea Yancey-Bragg, USA TODAY

Contact Kayla Jimenez at kjimenez@usatoday.comFollow her on X at @kaylajjimenez.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ebony Parker, Crumbleys charged for failing to stop school shootings