Skip to content

The Sins of the Children: Are Parents Responsible?

I’ve been following the trial of Jennifer Crumbley in Oakland County, Michigan this past week. Ms. Crumbley is charged with four counts of involuntary manslaughter for her alleged role in the crimes of her son Ethan. 

You might remember his case. On November 30, 2021, 15-year-old Ethan Crumbley, a sophomore at Oxford High, came to school with a 9mm semi-automatic pistol that his father had recently purchased for him. Just before 1 p.m., as classes were changing, he opened fire, killing four students and wounding seven others. It was the worst school shooting in state history. A horrific scenario that has become all too common in this country. 

Despite his age, Ethan was prosecuted as an adult. In October 2022, he pled guilty to 24 criminal charges, including murder and terrorism. As is typical for such cases here in the “land of the free,” he was sentenced to life in prison without parole, plus 24 years. At his sentencing, young Ethan said he deserved whatever he got: “I’m a really bad person.” He insisted his parents were not to blame for what he had done.

But that ship had long since sailed. In an unprecedented move, Oakland County prosecutors arrested both Jennifer and James Crumbley for their supposed complicity in Ethan’s actions. This marked the first time parents have been charged with homicide in a mass school shooting committed by their child.

Public sentiment generally supported this effort. In the wake of such tragedies when many are facing overwhelming grief, there is a powerful desire to assign blame and give out harsh punishment. That retribution impulse is strengthened by the recognition that we seem unable to deal with the underlying gun control issues at the root of the problem. And the issue that a significant number of our fellow-citizens care more about preserving their putative 2nd Amendment rights than about the lives of our children.

To make its case, the prosecution did what they could to portray Ms. Crumbley as a bad mother. They introduced evidence showing that Ethan was often home alone while she was out drinking or running around on her husband. They said that she cared more about her horses than her son and that she took Ethan to target practice for some bonding time. But knowing how difficult teen-age children can be, I’m reluctant to make any judgments without more information. If bad parenting was a crime, most of us would be guilty at some point. 

Ethan was clearly a troubled, depressed, anxious youth. In his notebook, which Ms. Crumbley says she never saw, he wrote about hearing voices, needing therapy, and a plan to cause bloodshed. Shortly before the shooting, on a math paper he had drawn a gun, a bullet and wrote: “blood everywhere.” One of his school counselors who saw the paper recommended immediate intervention. Others did not. Certainly, no one foresaw what took place.

The jury is set to begin deliberations in Ms. Crumbley’s case today, February 5. Involuntary manslaughter is a serious crime, punishable by up to 15 years in prison. And with four counts, she could potentially receive more time. But a conviction requires concrete evidence that she was grossly negligent and that she knowingly disregarded the danger her son represented.

I can’t guess what the jurors will do. They are admonished to follow the law. But from years of trial experience, I know they sometimes follow their own feelings. Whatever they decide, I don’t think any sentence can punish Ms. Crumbley more than she will punish herself for the rest of her life living with the knowledge that her son is a mass murderer. On the stand, she said she wished Ethan had killed her and her husband rather than four of his classmates.

The whole awful event, and its aftermath, have left me heartsick. Four young people—Madisyn Baldwin, 17; Tate Myre, 16; Hana St. Juliana, 14; Justin Schilling, 17—are dead; their lives ended before they had barely begun. Seven others were injured. The pain and grief around that hurt and loss is unspeakable. And there is no indication we are willing to do anything about the guns that are always at the center of such tragedies.

Regarding our criminal legal system, they treated Ethan as an adult. Now, in a blatant display of hypocrisy, the prosecution now takes the opposite position. To implicate his parents, they say “Actually, Ethan is a child,” so his mother and father are partly responsible for his actions. Let’s lock them away, too and dispose of the whole family in one fell swoop. (His father James is set for a trial next month.)

Finally, charging a 15-year-old as an adult, then sentencing him to life without parole for his crimes, is a terrible form of giving up on the humanity of a child. It’s a stark, clear assertion by the state that he is incapable of change and worth nothing.

I cannot think of any concept more opposed to the gospel of Jesus. His core message was that every person is made in the image of God. Every person has infinite value, every person from the greatest saint to the vilest criminal is redeemable. All of us who have been beneficiaries of God’s grace are obligated to extend it to others.

That’s not a message that many people seem to want to hear these days, regarding this case or any other. But it’s true, nonetheless.

About the author

Thomas Dybdahl has advanced degrees in theology, journalism, and law. A former Spectrum journalist and Adventist pastor, he retired as staff attorney at the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia where he worked in both the trial and appellate divisions and tried twenty-five homicide cases. His book, When Innocence Is Not Enough: Hidden Evidence and the Failed Promise of the Brady Rule (The New Press, 2023), tells gripping tales of crime and the wrongs done to the falsely accused when prosecutors don’t share evidence. More from Thomas Dybdahl.
Subscribe to our newsletter
Spectrum Newsletter: The latest Adventist news at your fingertips.
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.