Report places significant blame on administration and lack of policy employment
By Megan Kelley
OXFORD TWP. – Almost two years after the shooting at Oxford High School on Nov. 30, 2021, which claimed the lives of four students and resulted in injuries for another seven, families now have some answers after the final report from independent investigation company Guidepost Solutions LLC and Varnum LLP has been made available.
After months of push from parents, students and Oxford residents, Guidepost and Varnum were hired by the Oxford Community Schools Board of Education in May 2022 to perform an internal investigation of the district regarding its handling of the situation, both before and after the shooting occurred.
For 23 months, accusations against the district have circulated throughout the community, the report finally shedding light on what many have believed all along: that the district and its administration had failed to follow its own policies, in a way that some parents equated to “gross negligence.”
“Although the primary purpose of the District is to educate students, learning cannot be achieved unless the District provides an environment where students are safe and secure. In many ways, the District succeeded in this mission before and when the shooting started. Certain elements of District emergency training and physical security measures saved lives that day. Hundreds of OHS students followed the training that they had received from OHS to evacuate, lockdown, or otherwise take cover during an active shooter situation, and the door barricading devices installed by the District worked. Moreover, both students and District personnel heroically tried to save lives,” the report states.
The report also placed blame on the superintendent, the school board, administration and staff for failing “to provide a safe and secure environment.”
“However, as set forth more fully below, in certain critical areas, individuals at every level of the District, from the Board (of Education) to the Superintendent (Tim Throne) and his cabinet to the OHS administration and staff, failed to provide a safe and secure environment. Although only the Shooter is guilty of murder and assault, and his parents will be tried for their alleged gross negligence with respect to their son, the District was responsible for keeping Madisyn (Baldwin, 17), Tate (Myre, 16), Justin (Shilling, 17), Hana (St. Juliana, 14) and all of the other OHS survivors and students safe and secure at OHS on November 30, 2021, but failed to do so.”
The report further outlines the events of Nov. 29 and Nov. 30, 2021, but also goes as far to highlight the school’s structure including its policies regarding threat assessment, security and suicide intervention, as well as digging into incidents that had occurred at the school in the weeks leading up to the shooting like the “deer head incident,” “bird head incident” and “countdown incident” – which had all created a heightened sense of paranoia among OHS students.
Guidepost held informational meetings for the public on Nov. 2 at Oxford Township Hall to answer questions regarding the report, where many residents spoke to thank Guidepost for its investigation and express their ongoing distaste for the district and its handling of not just the shooting and subsequent fall out, but of the investigation – including its apparent unwillingness to cooperate fully by not requiring employees to comply with interview requests.
“That’s hard to believe, for me, that we have leadership in our school that won’t make their own employees cooperate with an investigation that they ordered. That’s insane. That proves what these people are doing and I hope our community unites against those people and replaces them because our kids are watching. And if we don’t fix this, who is going to fix it. It’s unacceptable,” one parent said during the informational meeting. “And thank you for coming out and exposing this to the public. It means a lot to me that you guys are here to answer questions without interrupting us or shutting us down. Thank you for being here and thank you for your hard work.”
According to Guidepost, of the 143 current or former Oxford Community Schools employees who were asked to interview for the report, 51 either refused or did not respond to requests.
To combat this, Guidepost had to rely on testimony given to law enforcement, or in courtroom hearings, as well as thousands of documents including emails, school assignments, text messages, social media posts and other materials relevant to the investigation.
While Guidepost maintained that they were given “arguably unprecedented” access to evidence, lack of cooperation from some district staff was made clear both in the time it took to conduct a thorough investigation, according to the report, and there were several inconsistencies in testimony between relevant parties which could have been addressed had the witnesses agreed to speak with Guidepost, the report stated.
“These important witnesses cited different reasons for their refusal to cooperate: trauma; fear of being dragged into or getting colleagues dragged into the civil litigation; hurting colleagues or the District; advice of counsel (the District’s litigation counsel); pressure from insurance companies; and direction from the teachers’ union. This lack of cooperation hindered and slowed our work and made the investigation more costly for the District,” the report states.
As a whole, the report outlines that there were several opportunities for district staff to have prevented the shooting from happening, but failures on multiple levels of leadership resulted in what occurred on Nov. 30, 2021.
One of the biggest missteps cited was district personnel not utilizing its threat assessment tool.
According to the report, the basis for completing a threat assessment in Oxford Schools is fairly low and, despite several staff members feeling the shooter did not possess a threat for a number of reasons, the school’s policy includes that a threat assessment should be done even if there are “concerning communications or behaviors that might suggest violence or harm.”
During one of the three informational sessions on Nov. 2, one parent asked Guidepost if there was any evidence that the district ever utilized their threat assessment form at any school in the district, to which a Guidepost representative said they did not.
While several staff members named in the report were found to have done the right thing, there were several who were not, thus creating an unsafe environment for the school’s 1,802 students.
“Our independent investigation established that the Shooter was not identified as a threat because individuals at Oxford High School failed to recognize on November 30, 2021, that the Shooter’s conduct, statements, and drawings suggested that he might cause physical harm at the school. As a result, these individuals did not escalate the Shooter’s conduct to the OHS principal, as required by District policy, and therefore the school did not perform a threat assessment of the Shooter.
“If an effective threat assessment had been done on November 30 – a threat assessment that complied with District policy and proper guidelines and was guided by an important District form – the Shooter would have been identified as posing a potential threat of violence. However, the responsibility for this failure does not lie solely with these individuals who interacted with the Shooter on November 30. Individuals at all levels of the Oxford Community Schools also bear responsibility for the tragedy that occurred at OHS on November 30, 2021.”