District asks for pause until after criminal trial
By James Hanlon
Leader Staff Writer
Tate Myre’s parents, and the parents of three other Oxford High School students are suing six staff members as well as the Crumbleys in connection to the Nov. 30 mass shooting.
The suit, filed in Oakland County Circuit Court on Jan. 27, alleges gross negligence by the school officials leading to Tate’s death and emotional distress for students Keegan Gregory, Grace Kempen and Sophia Kempen. Keegan, 15, was in the bathroom when Justin Shilling was fatally shot. Sisters Grace and Sophia were hiding in separate classrooms during the incident.
Named in the suit are school counselors Pam Parker Fine and Shawn Hopkins, Dean of Students Nicholas Ejak, three unnamed teachers, Ethan Crumbley and his parents James and Jennifer Crumbley.
It will likely be a long and difficult case because of governmental immunity for public employees. “This case will go up on appeal,” Attorney Ven Johnson, who is representing the parents in the suit, said during a press conference, “and will take, literally, years and years, because of the extra steps that we have to go through here in Michigan when you sue somebody who was an employee of a municipality or the state.”
Tate’s father, William “Buck” Myre, wants the lawsuit to bring accountability. “This was a really tough decision for our family,” he said. “We’re fully aware that people will misperceive why we’re doing this. But we taught Tate and his brothers to always be responsible for their actions and always be accountable for them. And it would be a dishonor to Tate if we didn’t do this, and the values that we stand for as a family.”
Buck added that it is not a reflection on Oxford or the school district as a whole. “We love Oxford. We always had Oxford’s back.”
This is the second suit brought against the school over its handling of the incidents on and leading up to Nov. 30. Well-known attorney Geoffrey Fieger is representing Jeffrey and Brandi Franz in two $100 million lawsuits on behalf of their children Riley and Bella in federal court.
Johnson’s suit differs from Fieger’s by including the Crumbleys as defendants and excluding OHS Principal Steve Wolf, Supt. Tim Throne and Oxford Community Schools itself.
Unlike Fieger, Johnson identifies by name the two counselors who met with Ethan Crumbley the day before and the day of the shooting. The suit also identifies the dean of students as Nicholas Ejak.
(Attorneys for the school district have repeatedly asked Fieger to drop from his suit Ryan Moore, who they say is incorrectly identified as the dean of students and has not worked in the high school for more than a year. Ryan Moore himself has filed a motion asking to be dismissed from the lawsuit and for Fieger to be sanctioned. Fieger’s office has said they will replace Moore’s name when the district supplies the correct name of the dean of students.)
Johnson’s suit also includes a third teacher who noticed suspicious behavior by Ethan. Teacher #3 noticed Ethan looking up videos of shootings on the morning of Nov. 30. This may or may not have been the same person as Teacher #2 who sent a picture of Ethan’s violent drawings on his math assignment to the school counselor Shawn Hopkins. “The investigation revealed that the same teacher or a different teacher, saw Ethan on his phone watching a violent video of a shooting,” Johnson said.
Teacher #1 reported to school counselor Pam Parker Fine that Ethan was looking up ammunition on Nov. 29.
The teachers are included along with the counselors because they each had an obligation under the Michigan Child Protective Act to report suspected child neglect to Child Protective Services and the police, the suit says.
Under the law, school counselors, social workers and teachers are required to immediately report if they have “reasonable causes to suspect child abuse or child neglect.”
“That doesn’t mean you have to have definitive proof,” Johnson said. “When you see something that looks really bad, then we want these folks to err on the side of caution and report. . .”
Johnson argued the failure by Ethan’s parents to get their son psychiatric help constituted abuse or neglect, and that each staff member had sufficient evidence to believe this was the case. The law does not absolve the teachers simply because they reported Ethan to another staff member within the school.
The crux of the case, however, is the issue of governmental immunity for the school employees. Although the law says “negligence,” judicial opinions in recent decades have interpreted that to mean “gross negligence.”
“Since these are public employees, I have to prove gross negligence,” Johnson said. “It’s a higher standard. . . Gross negligence is negligence that’s so beyond the pale that in essence it assumes that someone either willfully, on purpose, or intentionally, recklessly, dangerously blew their job.”
Johnson pointed out that if the incident had happened at a private school, there would be no governmental immunity and he would only have to prove negligence. He still believes he has a strong case and that the staff met Michigan’s definition of gross negligence with “conduct so reckless as to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether an injury results.”
Johnson is not seeking a specific dollar amount in the case. “At Johnson Law we don’t put down large numbers in a lawsuit just to get (media) attention,” he said.
Fathers speak out
During the press conference, Buck Myre and Chad Gregory said more about their sons and what their families are going through.
“We’re sad and heartbroken,” Buck said. “Our lives forever changed. Our family will never be the same.” He recalled how much Tate loved Christmas and other holidays, and reflected on all the life milestones Tate will never get to experience.
“(Tate) was an amazing, selfless young man,” Buck said, describing his character. “He put everybody else first. He was a great buddy to his friends and his teammates. He was an unreplaceable wingman to our family dog, Cash. He was a caring boyfriend, a loyal brother – very loyal – and a very loving son. We miss him so much.”
Besides accountability, Buck hopes the lawsuit will bring about a change in legislation for governmental immunity and increase mental health awareness.
Chad Gregory described the horrific experience his son had on Nov. 30. Keegan was hiding in a bathroom stall with Justin Shilling, who helped him come up with a plan to run if they got a chance.
Ethan called them out one at a time. After shooting Justin, he ordered Keegan against the wall. But Justin’s plan gave him the confidence to run to safety. “The minute the shooter took his gun off Keegan and pointed at the wall where he was going to kill him, he ran.”
Keegan is now experiencing severe anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. When he came home, “he was ice cold,” Chad said, “like a rock. No emotion. He didn’t hug us back. I don’t know what to do for him. He’s changed.”
Johnson said Keegan is receiving treatment, but it’s going to be “a long battle.”
Request to stay
Before Johnson’s lawsuit was filed last week, attorneys for Oxford Community Schools formally requested that Fieger’s lawsuits be put on hold until after the criminal cases conclude.
In his “motion to stay” Jan. 24, the school district’s attorney Timothy Mullins argues the lawsuits should be put on hold so they don’t interfere with the ongoing criminal cases against Ethan, James and Jennifer Crumbley in the 52-3 District Court.
Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald has directed the schools “to avoid releasing information related to the matter to prevent any interference with the ongoing criminal proceedings,” according to Mullins.
In December, a state court judge issued a protective order blocking Fieger’s access to evidence. Still, Fieger is trying to obtain evidence form the criminal investigation. He requested a long list of evidence in a Freedom of Information Act submission to both the prosecutor’s office and sheriff’s office, who denied the request, but told Fieger he may resubmit his request when the cases concludes.
“Permitting this case to go forward would force Defendants to disclose sensitive information that is crucial to the criminal investigations and the resulting criminal proceedings,” Mullins wrote in his motion.
The judge has not yet issued a ruling.
Mullins anticipated more lawsuits coming against the district. According to his motion, “there is a high likelihood that additional civil cases will be filed after the conclusion of the criminal cases” and “numerous attorneys have called indicating that they will be filing claims arising out of this incident in either Federal or State Court.”
Ven Johnson expects Mullins to file the same motion to stay in his case. “In 36 years of practice I have won that issue about 99.99 percent of the time,” Johnson said. “There is no reason to stop us from going forward in this case because the Crumbleys are undergoing prosecution in the other case.”
Supt. Throne responds to allegations
On Jan. 18, Superintendent Tim Throne sent a district-wide communication clarifying rumors and “false allegations and reckless statements” made by Geoffrey Fieger in an updated filing.
Throne said the county prosecutor has asked the school district not “unduly comment” on the detail in order to avoid interfering with the criminal case. The district will address more allegations as the criminal prosecution moves forward. “We feel it is important to clarify the details we can address at this time.”
Throne reiterated that the Nov. 4 deer head incident was investigated by law enforcement and was “in no way related to the perpetrator of the November 30 incident.”
Fieger’s suit claims that on Nov. 11, Ethan Crumbley left “a severed bird head in a mason jar containing a yellow liquid” on a toilet paper dispenser in a bathroom at the high school. It also claims that both Throne and Principal Steve Wolf were aware that it was left by Ethan.
Throne said the bird head was found on Nov. 11 and investigated by law enforcement, who “determined there was no threat to the high school” and “they were unable to determine when or how the jar was delivered.”
“The only actionable information” received about the incident was an anonymous tip on Nov. 17 stating that “a student, who is no longer a student of Oxford High School and not the perpetrator from November 30, was responsible for the bird head,” according to Throne.
The suit further claims that Throne and Wolf “reviewed the social media posts of Crumbley prior to November 30, 2021, which threated Oxford High School students.”
Throne responded, “The district was unaware of the perpetrator’s social media presence or related posts until after the November 30 incident.”
In addition to looking up ammunition on his cell phone, both Fieger’s and Johnson’s lawsuits claim Ethan Crumbley openly displayed live ammunition in class on Nov. 29.
“Allegations regarding live ammunition being discovered at school are completely false,” Throne said. “We have no record or report of live ammunition ever being reported at any school and we have strict protocols and procedures in place when it comes to weapons on school grounds.”
Finally, Throne commended the staff’s emergency response. “These false allegations should not diminish the exemplary actions of our school staff on Nov. 30.”
Their actions saved lives. “Our students and staff should be proud. Our high school administration, including Principal Steve Wolf, Kristy Gibson-Marshall, and Kurt Nuss ran toward the incident to effectively save children, administer aid to injured parties, and to locate the perpetrator, putting themselves in harm’s way. As an administrative team, we are extremely proud of their brave efforts that day.”