Oxford Community Schools hires firm to investigate mass shooting

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Oxford Community Schools officials, acting sooner than it had declared it would, on Tuesday approved hiring a consulting company to investigate and review the Nov. 30 shooting at Oxford High School.

The board hired Guidepost Solutions, an investigations, regulatory compliance, monitoring and security consulting firm. The firm will perform an investigation and full review of what happened at the high school the day of the shooting and in the days leading up to the deadly attack. It also hired a new law firm, Varnum Attorneys at Law in Grand Rapids, to represent the district in investigations, reviews and litigation connected to the shooting.

Board President Tom Donnelly said the board has been committed to a thorough review of the shooting since its statement in December that it would launch a third-party investigation.

Superintendent Ken Weaver, left, and President Tom Donnelly listen to Oxford High School students and residents during the meeting Tuesday.

“We understand waiting for civil and criminal cases to end does not serve this community well,” Donnelly said. “We can't wait any longer to get an independent understanding of what happened that day … and neither can you.”

Donnelly said he expects the final report to be public and that his understanding was the report would be be part of attorney-client privilege.

The announcement comes about a week after Donnelly, the district's top elected official, said a third-party review of Michigan's deadliest school shooting wouldn't be conducted until all litigation was resolved.

Trustee Dan D'Alessandro said it has been frustrating “for many” on the board that it has taken this long for it to decide on a third-party investigation.

“Our only path forward is the truth," he said. "The only path forward to heal is to get the information back to you as quickly as we can."

On Wednesday, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel expressed concern about the district waiving attorney-client privilege with the investigation and its report.

"We have seen this time and time again — outside firms hired by school boards will maintain attorney-client privilege with elected members and therefore the ability to stop short of full transparency," Nessel said in a statement. "It has remained clear that those impacted by this horrific tragedy want nothing more than a thorough investigation that can help identify ways to improve school safety for Oxford and all communities across our state. If the board members are truly listening to the community that elected them, they will commit to waiving any and all privilege at the outset."

Jarrod Watson, whose son Aiden was shot in the attack, told the board he was angry and wanted answers, and that they are not listening.

“I am angry someone tried to murder my son. My Mayberry is shattered. It’s gone,” Watson said. “I need action now. I need answers. How did that kid get to a class with a gun? It’s been six months and we don’t have answers.”

Watson said he was trying to get his daughter through graduation and Aiden through the school year.

“You can prevent it from happening again. I’m just a dad who sent his kid to school and he got shot,” Watson said.

Steve St. Juliana, father of Hana St. Juliana, who was killed in the attack, attended the board meeting and said a lot of details were missing about how the investigation will work.

“I’m thankful they’ve finally decided to follow through with their promise,” St. Juliana said. “My expectation is this will be a public report and fully transparent.”

Four Oxford High School students were killed in the shooting: Hana St. Juliana, 14; Madisyn Baldwin, 17; Tate Myre, 16; and Justin Shilling, 17. Six students and a teacher were wounded.

The global firm selected Tuesday helped the University of Michigan develop its response to sexual assault complaints and address the culture of sexual misconduct surrounding accused faculty members. It was also hired by the sexual abuse task force of the Southern Baptist Convention to conduct an assessment and investigation into the mishandling of past sex crime allegations.

Andrea Bitely, a spokeswoman for the district, said the school board earlier had received a recommendation to hire Guidepost from Varnum. The law firm has experience working with Guidepost, Donnelly said.

From left, secretary Mary Hanser, treasurer Korey Bailey, trustee Erick Foster and president Thomas Donnelly meet at Oxford High School on Tuesday night.

The goal would be to issue a final report at the end of the investigation that is public, Bitely said of the investigation. The cost of such an investigation and estimates on how long it would take were not available Tuesday. 

Board Treasurer Korey Bailey said he predicts the investigation will tell the district ways it can improve.

"But it will also say our team did it right and had the best interest at heart ... (active shooter training), night locks; we shut that situation down as fast as we did … you are never going to shut evil down when it has a motive,” Bailey said.

According to a letter from attorney Ronald G. DeWaard, Varnum will perform legal services for the district at a rate of $210 to $670 per hour and work would include meetings, office and telephone conferences, legal research, preparation and review of correspondence and documents.

Oxford Community Schools Board President Tom Donnelly, Jr. takes notes during a board meeting on May 10, 2022. Donnelly said last week that any investigation into the district actions in the days leading up to the Nov. 30, 2022, mass shooting would not happen until all criminal cases and civil litigation were resolved. However, the board Tuesday night is considering hiring a firm to begin an inquiry.

Oakland County Executive Dave Coulter lauded the board for agreeing to the probe.

"I remain committed to supporting Oxford and applaud the Oxford School Board for launching an independent and transparent review of the horrific shooting at the high school on Nov. 30," Coulter said. "Such a review is necessary and should help restore the trust and sense of security that Oxford students and families deserve. 

"To truly heal as a community, we must all remain committed to listening and learning the important lessons that help prevent similar tragedies from happening again."