Mitch Albom: The echo of preventable gunshots at Oxford High School will be heard forever

·6 min read

When an Oxford police deputy saw a 16-year-old football player crumpled on the floor, bleeding and dying from the bullets that Ethan Crumbley is accused of firing, he knew he couldn’t wait for an ambulance. So he made a fast decision. He carried the teen to his patrol car and sped desperately toward the hospital, trying to stop the horror that was unfolding in his vehicle.

He couldn’t do it. The young man died anyhow.

What does that officer do with that memory?

Another teenager was in the bathroom when Crumbley, only 15, allegedly shot a schoolmate named Justin Shilling in the head. That second teenager ran out the door, escaping a fate that Shilling could not.

What does the surviving kid do with that image?

Four families sent their bright and promising teenagers to high school last Tuesday morning with every expectation they would come home that afternoon and be here today, tomorrow, next week and when Christmas arrives later this month.

From left: Oxford High School students Tate Myre, 16, Justin Shilling, 17, Hana St. Juliana, 14, and Madisyn Baldwin, 17, were all killed by a fellow student during a school shooting on Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021.
From left: Oxford High School students Tate Myre, 16, Justin Shilling, 17, Hana St. Juliana, 14, and Madisyn Baldwin, 17, were all killed by a fellow student during a school shooting on Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021.

What do they do with those expectations now?

The bang of a bullet is the sound of pressure being released. It’s over in an instant. Then the real pressure begins. The real pressure is the way that bullet keeps flying around your life, a pounding force that won’t let you sleep at night, that makes your hands shake while holding your coffee, that leaves you inexplicably heaving for breath and shatters and re-shatters your already shattered heart.

For subscribers: The inside story of the shooting at Oxford High School

'We are wildcats': Thousands gather to reclaim Oxford, honor slain sons and daughters

That pressure, that banging bullet, is flying all over Oxford now. On Friday night, a stalwart group of citizens gathered there and held a vigil. They vowed, loudly, that their town would rise above the four dead and seven wounded in the hallways of their previously normal high school.

“We will not be defined by the tragedy,” a chaplain told the crowd.

But it will be defined by them.

Maybe it's time for an overreaction

The name Oxford is no different than the name Sandy Hook now, or Charlottesville or Columbine, places instantly associated with unimaginable horror, where kids live with haunted dreams and parents live with permanent holes in their hearts. What Crumbley and his enabling parents are charged with having done to this community is horrific and permanent, as devastating as an atom bomb, as tough to remove as a bloodstain.

And yes, I said his parents, because when grown-ups buy handguns as a “Christmas present” for underaged kids and send “you have to learn not to get caught” messages when their son is discovered shopping for ammunition on his phone during class, and when they are called to an emergency meeting at the school because their son drew an image of a gun and a wounded person and the words “blood everywhere” and “my life is useless” and “help me” and yet they don’t think he needs to go home with them, and they don’t even offer the information that just a few days earlier they bought a new pistol into the house that their son posted as “my new beauty” — then yes, in my view, they are culpable, just as the Oakland County prosecutor indicated in charging them with four counts of involuntary manslaughter.

According to the Oakland County prosecutor's office, a social media post from Ethan Crumbley shows heart emojis next to a photo of a gun with the words: "Just got my new beauty today."
According to the Oakland County prosecutor's office, a social media post from Ethan Crumbley shows heart emojis next to a photo of a gun with the words: "Just got my new beauty today."

And for those who say “How can you charge the kid as an adult and then say the parents are also responsible?” the answer is simple: adults enabling adults to commit crimes get charged all the time. It’s called “accessory.”

If all this strikes some as overreaction, well, what else can you do but overreact? As long as America remains a place where you can’t come down hard on gun ownership, it must be a place where you come down crazy hard on protection.

Will enough ever be enough?

So overreact. Err mightily on the side of caution. When a teacher catches a kid shopping for ammunition or sees a drawing that says “the voices won’t stop” and “help me,” there should be no hesitating. That kid needs to be out of school immediately. And stay out at least until whatever demons led to those scribbles are dealt with.

Keep children alive. That is so obviously the top priority of a high school that it should go without saying. This is not the first, second, fifth or 10th school shooting this year. According to the website Everytown for Gun Safety, there have already been 144 incidents of gunfire on school grounds this year alone. Twenty-eight deaths. Eighty-six injuries.

The cold winds did not discourage community members from bringing flowers and praying at a makeshift memorial at Oxford High School Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021, after four students were shot dead and several injured when a fellow student allegedly opened fire on the students and teachers at the school earlier in the week.
The cold winds did not discourage community members from bringing flowers and praying at a makeshift memorial at Oxford High School Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021, after four students were shot dead and several injured when a fellow student allegedly opened fire on the students and teachers at the school earlier in the week.

So, yes, overreact. Overprotect. Isn’t prevention worth it? You can’t board a plane with a dull kitchen knife. If you joke about having a “bomb” in an airport, you can be arrested.

Why then can’t you be immediately removed from school at the first sign of violent tendencies? Would we rather have what happened in Oxford keep happening?

More: In aftermath of Oxford shooting, our kids think they’re going to die

Consider all those adults in the room the morning of the shooting, with the 15-year-old Crumbley sitting there, his scribbled cry for help on the paper, and no one thought to open his backpack? No one thought to search for something with which this clearly disturbed child might do harm? Instead they sent him back to class?

That can’t happen. The norm must be to assume the worst. Complete and immediate investigation. If that means challenging kids’ privacy rights, challenge them. If it means metal detectors and locked doors at every one of the more than 110,000 high schools and elementary in this country, well, perhaps that time has come — whatever the cost. We’re spending trillions now for what some politicians claim is a fairer future. How can such a future not include assuring kids return home alive from high school?

Booking photograph of Ethan Crumbley, arrested and charged as an adult in the Oxford High School shooting on Nov. 30, 2021.
Booking photograph of Ethan Crumbley, arrested and charged as an adult in the Oxford High School shooting on Nov. 30, 2021.

A 15-year-old sits in a jail cell today. His parents — found hiding in a warehouse in the wee hours of Saturday morningwere arraigned in separate rooms of the same jail and, as of this writing, remain there as well. Who knows what thoughts are running through their minds? Perhaps they are filled with regret.

But what do they do with those regrets now? What do the teens who ran from the shooting do with their returning flashes of that bloody afternoon? What do the police who encountered all that carnage do with those mental images? What do the grieving brothers and sisters do with the empty chairs and new silence around the dinner table?

When Ethan Crumbley emerged from that bathroom with his Christmas present in his hand and started shooting, as prosecutors say he did, he didn’t just shoot up a hallway, he shot up the school system, the town, its future graduation ceremonies, and every December to come for those who live there. We can say, “It has to stop.” We should scream, “It has to stop!” But for Oxford, it’s too late.

The bang of a bullet is over in an instant. But the damn thing keeps flying around, putting holes in people’s lives. And its echo goes on forever.

Contact Mitch Albom: malbom@freepress.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Mitch Albom: We'll hear echo of gunshots at Oxford forever

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