By James Hanlon
Leader Staff Writer
A combination of memorial funds for the victims of the Nov. 30 Oxford High School shooting have raised almost $2 million, but it will be several more months, at least, until victims receive any of those funds. A local committee has formed under guidance of a national organization to oversee the distribution process.
Immediately after the tragedy, fundraisers popped up across crowdfunding platforms like GoFundMe and it was difficult to verify their legitimacy. Many were started by folks from out of state. Some organizers were relatives of victims, but it was hard to know.
In an effort to have a trusted place where people could donate, local financial institutions Oxford Bank and Genisys Credit Union established the “Oxford Community Memorial and Victims Fund” and “Oxford Strong” funds respectively.
Oxford Bank set up their account in collaboration with the Oxford DDA and the school district. In December, Oxford Village Council agreed to allow the National Compassion Fund (NCF) to handle the distribution process since that organization has experience with similar funds. Oxford Township Board also voted to acknowledge the NCF at its January meeting.
Oxford Bank raised about $1.58 million and Genisys raised about $240,000, according to Oxford Village Manager Joe Madore. These were temporary accounts that have since merged with NCF’s Oxford High School Survivors Fund. Oxford Bank had no comment and referred all questions for this article to Madore.
“We are directing donations directly to the NCF site as much as possible,” Madore said.
The NCF is a subsidiary of the National Center for Victims of Crime, a nonprofit and a leading authority in compensating victims of mass casualty events. Since 2014, the NCF has collected and distributed over $103 million to victims, including funds for the school shootings in Parkland, Florida and Santa Fe, Texas. Oxford will be its 21st fund.
The NCF will handle collections and disbursements, provide advice and technical assistance, but all final policy decisions are made locally. “The local steering committee will work with NCF to come up with the protocols for funds disbursement,” Madore said.
“We always work with a local steering committee,” said Jeff Dion, executive director of the NCF. “The policy decisions really need to be made by people in the local community informed by the local experience and local community values.”
The steering committee is typically made of community members representing certain areas of expertise including a mental health professional, an estates lawyer, someone with communications experience and a victim of a past mass shooting.
The seven members of the Local Steering Committee for the Oxford High School Survivors Fund are: Patricia Duke, executive director of Love INC of North Oakland County; Dr. Michelle Kasenic, GLIO Counseling; Heather Pizzala, vice president of communications at Genisys Credit Union; Alaina Sullivan, trusts and estates attorney; Christine Stephens, family law attorney; Joe Farrell, an Oxford resident; and Kiara Parker, a wounded survivor of the Pulse nightclub shooting and relative of the youngest victim killed.
Dion gave an overview of the timeline going forward. Right now the steering committee is drafting a set of protocols. Once the draft is ready, there will be a month-long public comment period during which the community can review the proposed protocols and submit feedback. After the committee votes on the final protocols, victims will be able to submit an application to receive funds. The NCF will validate each application. Then the committee will make final allocation decisions based on the number of beneficiaries and the amount of available funds.
The whole process will take several months. Some donors to the original Oxford Community Memorial and Victims Fund have expressed frustration at how long it is taking, since their donations are not meeting immediate needs of the victims.
Ron Renaud, an Addison resident, started asking questions when he saw social media posts asking for donations to a fund for the Tate Myre family that wasn’t organized until January. “I wondered why isn’t the fund established at the Oxford bank distributing to them in their time of need,” he said.
But the committee process is meant to transparently ensure equitable distribution with community input.
The protocol document will govern eligibility, the timeline and how decisions will be made. Committees usually organize victims by categories such as death, physical injury and psychological trauma, then create a distribution plan based on those categories, Dion said. “Generally everyone in the same category gets the same amount.”
When the draft protocol is published anyone can give feedback. The committee will hold a public town hall where they will explain the protocol, answer questions and take comments. The committee will then have the option to edit the protocol before finalizing it.
Then it takes about two weeks to launch the online application. “We can’t start that until the protocol is finalized because it’s going to be geared toward questions and the way they set eligibility,” Dion said.
Victims must proactively apply to receive funds. The NCF cannot contact victims until they self-identify with the fund to receive information. They should sign up for updates from the website, nationalcompassion.org, by clicking on “Oxford Fund,” then scroll to the bottom to fill out a form. “Anyone who wants to stay informed about the development of this fund should sign up and get on the list.”
Applications are usually open for about a month. Once a victim submits an application, the NCF starts validating the information provided. They have to verify that the victim was present at the time of the shooting by verifying attendance records with the school. They also have to verify injuries with hospital records.
Medical providers have 30 days to respond to HIPA requests, so there will be about a month-long cushion after applications close to make sure everything is validated.
Then the committee will come back together to make final decisions based on the number of validated applicants and amount of money available. Committee members are advised to ask themselves three questions when making decisions: Is it the right thing to do? Is it fair? Can it practically be accomplished?
“A lot of it is based on the circumstances of the event,” Dion said, “and people have to weigh through . . . as they try to do their best to be good stewards of these funds and honor the intent of donors.”
The funds will be given to victims in cash payments as tax-free gifts. Since most victims were minors, the money may have to go into a trust or custodial bank account until the child comes of age.
“Certainly a parent or trustee can use money from that fund for the care and support of the child. Our whole goal, especially when it is a child getting the money, is to make sure those funds are protected for them so you don’t have a parent use the money for other purposes.”
For children who were killed, funds usually go to their parents or guardian.
“This is not in any way based on economic loss or medical bills or anything like that,” Dion said. Michigan already has a crime victim compensation program that is designed to reimburse victims for out-of-pocket expenses like medical bills, funeral costs and mental health counseling. But the program does not reimburse people for psychological trauma or pain and suffering.
Moreover, it is a “payer of last-resort” that will reimburse victims only if nobody else is paying for those out-of-pocket costs. “We want to make sure we can help victims maximize and leverage existing benefits,” Dion said, “so our gift to those victims is all based on trauma.”
The NCF focuses on helping victims directly, rather than building memorials. 100 percent of the funds will go directly to victims. “The National Compassion Fund doesn’t take a dime.”
The fund is still accepting donations. The committee will set a donation deadline in the draft protocol.
Dion believes the fund will continue to grow in the meantime. “We try to strike an appropriate balance to hold the fund open for donations as long as possible to maximize the donations, but also to do it as soon as we can so that we can disperse the funds out to the families.”
Folks can donate at gofundme.com/f/oxford-high-school-survivors-fund. “We’ve always worked with GoFundMe,” Dion said. “They’ve been a great partner.”
A tracker on GoFundMe should keep the figures up to date as more money is added from other sources like checks, wire transfers and remaining funds from the Oxford Bank account.
Several other general victims’ funds on GoFundMe (including one with $130,000) have consolidated their fundraisers with the main fund. Funds for specific individual victims, organized by close friends or family members, remain open. GoFundMe has compiled an official list of about a dozen verified funds.
GoFundMe is a for-profit company that makes money based on a voluntary tip system. There is no platform fee and they don’t charge a percentage for themselves. There is a standard card processing fee, however, of 2.9% + $.30 for all donations.
“If you don’t want to pay the processing fee, send us a check or do a wire transfer,” Dion said. “Particularly for people who want to give $5,000 or more, we actually recommend that they don’t do it online so they don’t get hit with that fee.”
Oxfordcommunityvictimsfund.com has extra information, including mail check and wire transfer directions.
By James Hanlon