As the nation still processes the shock and horror of the tragedy at Oxford High School, the local Michigan prosecutor has wasted little time in bringing up the matter of accountability. Four young lives have been lost, and someone must be held responsible. But who?
There is no real debate the alleged shooter must pay the piper. The much trickier question, however, is what about his parents and, specifically, the prosecutor’s decision to file involuntary manslaughter charges against them?
Under Michigan law, these charges will require the prosecutor to prove that the parents acted or failed to act in a way that caused the victims’ deaths and that in doing so they acted in a grossly negligent manner. Establishing gross negligence itself requires the parents knew that there was a dangerous situation that required they take ordinary care to prevent, they could have prevented it, and failed to do so.
Consider the facts emerging from the Oxford High School case. Reports indicate that in addition to buying the handgun for the alleged shooter, the parents were informed on the morning of the shooting that their son had made alarming drawings of a violent shooting and that otherwise evidenced deeply disturbed thinking. That the mother texted her son not to “do it” after the shooting hit the news, and the father immediately checked the whereabouts of the missing firearm and contacted police.
While there is at least one previous instance in Michigan in which an adult pled no contest to involuntary manslaughter after a child shot and killed another at school, rarely does our legal system hold someone criminally responsible for the acts of someone else. Indeed, the uniquely powerful parent-child relationship makes it one of the very few places we ever do so, but it is still ground we should tread incredibly carefully.
Which acts a parent ought to be responsible for is incredibly difficult to resolve. As any parent can tell you, guessing what one’s child will do is frequently an effort in futility. Besides which, how much risk of harm requires action and how great does that harm have to be?
If involuntary manslaughter charges fit the facts at Oxford High School – rather than, for example, a misdemeanor charge under Michigan’s law creating parental responsibility for a child who violates school weapons laws – that does not mean that the prosecutor should be trying to “send a message” with this prosecution. That’s not the job of any prosecutor. That’s for the legislature to decide.
Good criminal justice policy—the kind that actually promotes public safety—is rarely built from a single case. If the people of Michigan believe that parents should be held responsible for these kinds of acts, then their elected representatives should write a relevant standard into law rather than leaving it up to the courts to do in patchwork and inconsistent fashion. This is the only way to ensure that parents have meaningful notice of the extent of their responsibility over their children, and to prevent potential future cases in which weaker evidence might result in an unjust and unreasonable prosecution.
We also cannot expect the criminal justice system alone to somehow prevent all such school violence. While many may disagree on the question of charging the parents, this case should serve as reminder to everyone—parents, teachers, and others—of the importance of vigilance and intervention in situations in which someone is exhibiting significant mental distress. Prevention requires everyone to act and help because it is the right, best thing to do, not just because it might avoid some prosecution that may or may not be coming down the road.