Just three days before her 15-year-old son carried out a mass shooting at his Michigan high school in 2021, Jennifer Crumbley was captured on security camera leaving a shooting range with the handgun in tow.
She had just taken her son out to target practice in what she described on social media as a “mom and son day testing out his new Christmas present:” a 9-millimeter pistol the high schooler referred to online as “My new beauty.”
The images were pivotal to an unprecedented conviction this week that legal scholars predict could create a new tool for prosecutors as the nation looks for ways to stem a record-setting uptick in mass shootings.
“This is the last picture we have of that gun until we see it murder four kids on Nov. 30, and the person holding it is Jennifer Crumbley,” Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald said before a jury convicted the mother on four counts of involuntary manslaughter — one for each of the students her son gunned down at Oxford High School.
“She’s the last person we see with that gun,” McDonald said.
Crumbley is the first parent to be held directly responsible for a school shooting carried out by their child, turning on its head a bedrock legal principle: People cannot be held responsible for the actions of others.
“Look, I thought this case could go either way and still when the result came out I was a bit stunned because it’s such a deep legal principle,” Ekow Yankah, a University of Michigan law professor, told The 74.
And if other parents are charged in connection with shootings acted out by their children, Yankah said, the Crumbley conviction may make them more likely to accept a plea deal behind closed doors.
“Prosecutors will be tempted to use this power in ways that we don’t see,” he said. “A prosecutor is going to sit across from a parent when people are crying out for somebody to be held accountable and the prosecutor is going to be able to say, ‘I’m offering you three years to five years in prison, but if you don’t take this deal, I will prosecute for 15 years.’ ”
For gun control advocates and the parents of children killed in their classrooms, the landmark trial’s outcome was welcomed. Craig Shilling, the father of Oxford shooting victim Justin Shilling, told a local TV station the conviction is “definitely a step towards accountability.” About three-quarters of school shooters obtain their guns from a parent or another close relative, according to a 2019 U.S. Secret Service report. In about half of cases, the guns had been readily accessible.
The conviction is in many ways a watershed moment that hinged heavily on portrayals of Crumbley as a neglectful mom who paid more attention to her horses and an affair than to the son she’d gifted a gun to as he struggled with his mental health and exhibited violent behaviors.
In this case James Crumbley, the gunman, was charged as an adult while his mother was found guilty of crimes that stemmed from her role as an egregiously aloof and reckless parent. The gunman pleaded guilty in October 2022 to 24 charges, including first-degree murder and terrorism causing death, and was sentenced to life in prison without parole in December.
The shooter’s father, James Crumbley, is scheduled to face a similar trial next month.
Yankah, the UMichigan law professor, told The 74 he wasn’t aware of any other cases where a parent was held liable for the crimes of a child who was simultaneously considered “a legal agent” and therefore responsible for his own actions.
It’s not the first time a parent has been held legally responsible for crimes committed by their children —including in helping their child secure a firearm later used in a mass shooting. Still, experts said the Crumbley case does present a significant escalation in a generations-long push to hold parents accountable for the misdeed of their kids.
One study, published in the Utah Law Review in 2008, noted that such efforts appeared cyclical, noting that “every couple of decades or so” lawmakers claimed to “discover” the idea of holding parents to account for teenage crimes.
States nationwide maintain “parental responsibility laws,” which impose civil or criminal liability on adults under the premise that their failures to take control as parents led to their kids’ bad acts. There is research that ties youth delinquency to poor parenting.
One recent parental responsibility law, passed by Nevada lawmakers in 2022, specifically addressed guns. It imposed civil liability on parents for negligence or willful misconduct if they allow their minor children to use or possess guns if the child has been adjudicated delinquent, was convicted of a crime, has the propensity to commit violence or intends to use the weapon unlawfully.
Efforts to hold parents accountable for their children’s behaviors are rooted in the very origins of the nation’s juvenile justice system in the early 1900s, which authorized the state to intervene when parents failed in their duties, according to research into the laws’ origins and their constitutional implications. By the 1970s, the report notes, lawmakers began to place a greater emphasis on parents as a factor in juvenile crime and turned to “vicarious blaming.”
Little is known, however, about whether such efforts have been effective in reducing juvenile crime. Eve Brank, a professor of law and psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, told The 74 that she is unaware, after decades of researching the emergence of parental responsibility laws, of “any empirical research that shows that imposing punishments on parents because of the actions of the children will decrease juvenile crime.”
She is also unaware of any data indicating how frequently those laws are used. In 2015, she conducted a survey of police chiefs and district attorneys, who reported infrequent enforcement. Through her research, Brank has identified three types of such laws: civil liability, contributing to the delinquency of a minor and parental involvement.
Under the statutes, parents can be held responsible for helping or encouraging their child to commit a crime and financially liable for damages. They can also be required to pay fines or attend parenting classes due to their children’s criminal acts.
Among them are truancy laws, which require students to attend school. In New Jersey, for example, parents who don’t compel their children to attend school can face disorderly conduct charges and fines. Such efforts, however, have been heavily criticized — including during the 2016 presidential election when Vice President Kamala Harris was scrutinized for her embrace of California rules that imposed jail time and fines on parents in truancy cases while she served as state attorney general.
In 2017, Pennsylvania lawmakers reformed state truancy rules and made them less punitive after a Reading County woman was found dead in 2014 while serving a two-day jail sentence for her children’s truancy because she was unable to pay a $2,000 fine.
“Many of those statutes came under a lot of strain in the last say 15 years,” including ones around truancy, Yankah said, adding that people were skeptical about whether they addressed the root causes underlying the social problems they sought to address and could uphold long standing racial disparities in the judicial system. “Frankly, communities of color really learned that — as is so often the case — when we pass more criminal statutes the people who are in the crosshairs are politically vulnerable. It was a lot of Black mothers, and so those statutes kind of faded out of popularity.”
In some cases, parental responsibility laws have failed under court scrutiny. Among them is an ordinance in Maple Heights, Ohio, that held parents criminally liable for “failing to supervise a minor” if their child committed what would be considered a misdemeanor or a felony if it had been carried out by an adult. The state appeals court struck down the statute in 2008 after a parent faced charges after her 17-year-old son was accused in juvenile court of carrying a concealed weapon, resisting arrest and failing to comply with a police officer.
Meanwhile, officials have also sought to hold parents responsible when their children bully other kids. In 2016, the city council in Shawano, Wisconsin, passed an ordinance that imposed $366 fines on parents who failed to address their child’s harassment directed at other kids.
In a high-profile cyberbullying case from 2013, a Florida sheriff bemoaned his inability to arrest the parents of a girl who was charged criminally for harassing a 12-year-old classmate so relentlessly online that it led the girl to die by suicide. Among the harassment was an online message encouraging the 12-year-old to “drink bleach and die,” yet the parents continued to give the bully access to social media.
“I’m aggravated that the parents aren’t doing what parents should do,” Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd told reporters at the time. “Responsible parents take disciplinary action.”
A new category of parental responsibility
Crumbley’s conviction, Brank said, “doesn’t fit into any of these categories” of traditional parental responsibility laws and is instead a first-of-its-kind extension of the manslaughter statute.
As officials seek to crack down on mass shootings, the Crumbley case is one of several recent examples where prosecutors sought to hold parents accountable when their children carried out what once were unthinkable acts of violence.
In December, a Virginia mother was given a two-year prison sentence for felony child neglect after her 6-year-old son brought a gun to his Newport News elementary school and shot his first-grade teacher. In a separate prosecution, the mother pleaded guilty to using marijuana while owning a firearm and for making false statements about her drug use.
In a separate prosecution that may have laid the groundwork for the Crumbley case, an Illinois father pleaded guilty to misdemeanor reckless conduct on charges that stemmed from a shooting carried out by his son at a 2022 Highland Park Independence Day parade, which left seven people dead. That case centered on how his son, who was 19 at the time, obtained a gun license.
At the time of the massacre, the gunman was too young to apply for a firearm license so his father sponsored his application despite knowing his son had a history of behaving violently. Several months before the attack, a relative reported to police that the teenager had a large collection of knives and had threatened to “kill everyone.”
In the Highland Park case, the state prosecutor was explicit: The father’s guilty plea, he said, should be a “beacon” to others that parents can be held accountable for the actions of their children.
“We’ve laid down a marker to other prosecutors, to other police in this country, to other parents, that they must be held accountable,” Lake County State Attorney Eric Rinehart said. “The risk of potentially losing this innovative prosecution — and not putting down any marker — was too great for our trial team.”
Yankah said it’s important to look at new parental accountability efforts through their historical contexts.
“Looking back at history,” he said, “shows us that our historical experiments with this kind of liability for parents has rarely solved the underlying problem,” he said. “Maybe this kind of case will have an effect, maybe parents will be more attentive. But to speak honestly, I think what a case like this shows is how many different things we as a society have to work on if we really want to be free of this violence.”
Mark Keierleber is an investigative reporter at The 74. Previously, Mark was a reporter at the Student Press Law Center, a Washington, D.C.-based legal assistance agency, where he reported on government transparency and First Amendment issues relevant to students and educators.