Mass shooting survivors filing $100M lawsuits against Oxford Schools
Southfield — Oxford Community Schools officials knew Ethan Crumbley posted threatening comments on social media but failed to protect fellow students and downplayed the danger, according to a $100 million federal lawsuit filed Thursday by survivors of the country’s deadliest school shooting since 2018.
The case filed by sisters Riley Franz, 17, an Oxford High School senior, and Bella Franz, 14, a freshman, marked the start of what is expected to be a flurry of lawsuits seeking to hold the district and school officials responsible for the Nov. 30 massacre that killed four students and wounded six others and a teacher. Riley was shot in the neck while next to Bella as they exited a restroom during the attack, according to Fieger.
That lawsuit accuses school officials of failing to stop an attack that inflicted physical and psychological injuries on students and spreads the blame among the highest-ranking Oxford school officials along with unidentified teachers and counselors.
Superintendent Timothy Throne and High School Principal Steven Wolf failed to take steps that could have prevented an attack despite reviewing ominous social media posts by Crumbley in the days and hours leading up to the attack, Fieger alleged. Those posts and warning signs included photographs of weapons, a countdown clock and the quote “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds. See you tomorrow Oxford."
Instead of disciplining Crumbley, removing him from school or heeding warnings from parents who reported to school officials rumors of an imminent attack, the superintendent downplayed the threat and concluded there was not a credible threat, according to the lawsuit.
And in the minutes leading up to the shooting, despite a school policy banning backpacks in classrooms, school officials allowed Crumbley to keep his backpack and failed to search it. The backpack is believed to have contained the pistol and ammunition, according to the lawsuit.
"The horror of November 30, 2021, was entirely preventable," said the siblings' lawyer, Geoffrey Fieger, adding a second $100 million lawsuit was forthcoming but did not release details.
School district spokeswoman Danielle Stublensky did not respond to messages seeking comment Thursday.
Throne posted a message Wednesday on the district’s website that said the district has been and will continue to be fully cooperative with the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office and Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office with their investigation.
“We haven’t been able to say more because this is an ongoing investigation,” Throne said. “We do not have all the facts and cannot interfere with the prosecutorial investigation. We know this has caused frustration and anger but we are doing our best under difficult circumstances.”
Fieger said Thursday he would amend the Franz girls' lawsuit filed Thursday to include accusations of gross negligence and endangerment of children under Michigan's child protection laws.
"At Oxford High School, they'll search your backpack if they think you're vaping, but they refused to suspend or search a student who wrote what we now know was reams of homicidal notes and drawings, scenes of classroom slaughter and mania," he said.
Fieger said he hoped that by making the financial cost of "allowing children to be slaughtered" high people in authority would be compelled to make necessary changes.
He described Riley and Bella as honor students who "were shot down like they were in a war zone." Riley was accepted into six colleges, he said, and instead of spending her holiday break focusing on that, she has to instead focus on recovering from an injury that Fieger said less than 2% of people survive. Bella was next to her during the shooting and is "literally traumatized as if she was surviving in a war zone," he said.
"This is not unique, the horror this family has to go through," he said.
Teachers were included in the suit, he said, because the district has not been forthcoming about who was involved in critical decisions regarding the decisions to allow Crumbley to remain in school and to not involve the high school's police liaison officer, an Oakland County Sheriff's Office deputy.
The lawsuit chronicles several ignored warning signs, including threats posted on social media, and faults Wolf for downplaying dangers to students in the days leading up to the shooting.
Multiple parents alerted Wolf to the online threats on Nov. 16, prompting the principal to send an email to parents later that day, according to the lawsuit.
"I know I'm being redundant here, but there is absolutely no threat at the HS … large assumptions were made from a few social media posts, then the assumptions evolved into exaggerated rumors,” Wolf wrote.
Fieger also represented the family of Isaiah Shoels, who was killed in the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School, an event he said had many similarities to the shooting at Oxford High School. A judge eventually ordered Shoels' family to accept a $366,000 settlement in the suit against the gunmen's families.
Fieger acknowledged that Michigan's governmental immunity laws make it difficult to sue school districts.
Victims suing Oxford schools will have to overcome that immunity, a high threshold in legal cases, said Royal Oak lawyer Todd Flood.
“One of the ways to overcome governmental immunity is by showing deliberate indifference and that it was a state-created liability with gross negligence,” Flood said. “That is the biggest hurdle.”
Flood represents several women in a lawsuit against Eastern Michigan University that alleges officials covered up dozens of sexual assaults.
“With all of the facts that have been laid out, it is clear to me that this was a state-created liability,” Flood said. “They had all of the tools to prevent this and were in a very unique position to stop this had they just used reasonable care.”
The day of the shooting, Wolf and Throne reviewed Crumbley’s social media posts, according to the lawsuit, including the sinister quote that ended with "See you tomorrow Oxford.”
“Despite the posts and knowledge of threats of violence, defendant Throne sent correspondence and emails to parents at Oxford High School reassuring them that their children were safe at Oxford High School,” the lawsuit reads. “By virtue of defendant Throne’s actions, he substantially increased the harm to plaintiff’s Minors.”
The day before the shooting, a teacher spotted Crumbley searching for ammunition on his cellphone after his father bought him a Sig Sauer 9 mm semi-automatic pistol as an early Christmas present, according to police.
The teacher let Crumbley stay in class, alerted an unidentified counselor but failed to warn the school safety liaison officer, the lawsuit alleges. That same day, Crumbley met with the counselor and a staff member and he was allowed to return to school the next day.
The unidentified staff member “made a knowing and deliberate decision to not take any meaningful corrective action against Ethan Crumbley, increasing the risk that plaintiffs’ minors would be exposed to Ethan Crumbley’s acts of violence.”
The next day on the day of the shooting, an unidentified teacher found a note on Crumbley’s desk that included a sketch of a semi-automatic pistol and the counselor snapped a photo with her cellphone, according to Fieger.
The note read: “The thoughts won’t stop help me” and included a drawing of a bullet and the words “blood everywhere.”
A second unidentified teacher let Crumbley keep his backpack in the classroom, an apparent violation of school policy, a move that gave the alleged shooter “easy access to store a gun,” the lawsuit alleges.
After discovering the note, Crumbley was removed from class and sat in the school office for 90 minutes, with his backpack, while waiting for his parents to arrive at school, according to Fieger.
The unidentified counselor knew or should have known "such actions would further accelerate Ethan Crumbley’s murderous plans," according to the lawsuit.
Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard has said Crumbley can be seen on video footage leaving a school bathroom after the Nov. 30 meeting armed and walking down a school hallway where he began shooting randomly at students and a teacher at close range.
School officials “gave Ethan Crumbley the opportunity to go to the bathroom, with his backpack, to prepare for his planned rampage,” Fieger wrote in the lawsuit.
Meanwhile, Timothy J. Mullins, attorney for the Oxford school district, sent Fieger a letter on Thursday afternoon demanding him to retract allegations in the lawsuit against one of the persons named, saying the man has not worked at the district in more than a year and the allegations against him are false.
“It is this type of misrepresentation that has resulted in school employees receiving death threats,” Mullins said in the letter. “I insist you publicly retract this lie and apologize.”