Parent role: School shootings raise questions about accountability

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In a year that’s seen the most school shootings in at least two decades, the search for accountability and prevention is leading to parents. 

A Michigan prosecutor quickly took legal action against the mother and father of a student gunman who is accused of killing four students last week. The parents were charged with multiple counts of involuntary manslaughter, in part for issues related to supervision and access to the gun. Their 15-year-old son is being charged as an adult with terrorism and multiple counts of first-degree murder. 

Why We Wrote This

Preventing school shootings has always taken a village. But new attention is being put on the role parents in particular play in monitoring and being responsible for student actions.

The rarely used tactic has generated some optimism about holding parents responsible and spurring tougher gun storage laws. Yet it may remain an atypical approach, some experts say. Thwarting future school shootings depends on a range of efforts, researchers suggest, including providing more mental health support, limiting access to guns, and helping parents know what to watch for. 

The focus on the Michigan couple “brings up the question of what are the responsibilities of parents in homes where they have guns,” says Matthew Mayer, an associate professor at Rutgers University. “We have to look at the larger issues here and say how do we help educate and change the behaviors of parents nationally so that kids can’t get to the guns if they are in the home.”

In the days since four students were killed and seven other people were injured in a mass shooting at Oxford High School in Michigan, there’s been no shortage of questions about whether the attack could have been prevented and whom to hold accountable: the parents? The school? Both? 

Charging the parents of the accused student gunman – which a Michigan prosecutor did quickly – is a rarely used tactic that has generated some optimism about holding parents more accountable and spurring tougher gun storage laws. Yet it may remain atypical for mothers and fathers to be charged, some experts say, suggesting that the measure is also more reactive than preventive. Thwarting future school shootings depends on a range of efforts, researchers suggest, including providing more mental health support and limiting access to guns. 

The decision to focus on the parents in this case “brings up the question of what are the responsibilities of parents in homes where they have guns,” says Matthew Mayer, an associate professor of educational psychology at Rutgers University in New Jersey who specializes in school violence prevention. He points to studies showing that 4.6 million to 5.4 million children live in homes with access to guns.

Why We Wrote This

Preventing school shootings has always taken a village. But new attention is being put on the role parents in particular play in monitoring and being responsible for student actions.

Michigan law does not require gun owners to lock their firearms, but possession of a gun by a minor is illegal, except for some instances of hunting with a license or under supervision of an adult. In the current case, the gun was apparently a gift that the father and son Ethan bought together four days before the shooting, according to prosecutors. The 15-year-old is being charged as an adult with terrorism and multiple counts of first-degree murder; the parents have been charged with multiple counts of involuntary manslaughter.

“We have to look at the larger issues here and say how do we help educate and change the behaviors of parents nationally so that kids can’t get to the guns if they are in the home,” Dr. Mayer says. “Part of it is education, but part of it is laws and regulations. It’s not going to happen just by force. You have to convince people that it’s an important thing to do.” 



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