OXFORD TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WXYZ) — The Oakland County Prosecutor has accused Ethan Crumbley's parents of refusing to take him home from school before the shooting at Oxford High School last week. But what options did the school have?
“This young man, certainly, from what he was saying, seemed like he was crying out for help and in distress,” Rebecca Vannest, professor with the Oakland University Department of Counseling, said.
Vannest says in hindsight, it might be easy for members of the public to want to blame some school staff. She says she also knows we don’t yet have all the information and the true way to honor victims is to learn, so we can make changes that save the lives of others.
One issue, she says, is how little we invest in mental health in schools.
“Michigan has the second worse ratio of students to school counselors in the nation,” Vannest said.
According to the Michigan Department of Education, the recommended caseload is 250 students per counselor. Oxford high had 450 students per counselor. The American School Counselor Association reports that in the 2019-2020 school year, Michigan had an average of 671 students per counselor.
The superintendent of Oxford Community Schools sent out an email this weekend saying after a teacher reported that Crumbley drew a picture of a shooter killing people with the words, "Help me," a counselor observed him for an hour and a half until his parents got there. The parents then allegedly refused to take him home.
Vannest says that puts the school in a tough position. Trying to force the parents to take him home can lead to legal action against the school.
“The right to have a free access to public education is very robust,” Vannest said.
The superintendent’s letter said that the counselor considered Crumbley’s calm demeanor and desire to work on an assignment while he waited for his parents, his explanation that the drawing reflected a video game idea he had and his lack of past disciplinary issues before allowing him to return to class. The counselor also did not have any information about the possibility he might have a gun.
“Those parents should have taken him home. There is no question in my mind,” said Jennifer Fritz, professor and director of Eastern Michigan University's School of Social Work.
Fritz says she knows there are legal issues with sending him home, but with the information we have now, it is clear he should not have been at school.
“The school should have made him leave. But I can’t blame them for not doing that. I wish that they would have,” Fritz said.
Since the shooting, which claimed four lives, schools have been clarifying policies on what do, such as when administration or law enforcement should be called, or when a student should be kept in isolation under supervision.
“Do I think our teachers and all of our districts and counselors are trained well enough on how to handle this? I honestly do not. I think there needs to be more training. Even the schools that are trained are not trained well enough,” Fritz said.
Fritz says the workload put on school administrators and support staff is unrealistic if the goal is sufficiently supporting the emotional well-being of students.
“There should be way more social workers. There should be counselors, social workers. There should be psychologists. There is so much more that should be done. And I am probably not going to be liked for saying all of this,” Fritz said.
Both professors say the work of preventing such tragedies as we saw at Oxford High School does not rest solely with the schools.
Vannest says one challenge that school counselors face often is that the entire mental health system is fractured. When a student is in crisis and potentially at risk to themselves or others, there too often is no one available to treat them.
It can sometimes take weeks to get an appointment with a psychiatrist or an admission in the hospital. Vannest says we need to address this to give counselors tools to prevent such tragedies.