The Crumbley family of Oxford, Michigan, and the victims of Ethan Crumbley’s early semiautomatic Christmas present purchased by Dad on the well named Black Friday, have been on my mind for the past week. I wish they would go away, and I wish It would go away. But they won’t go away, and It won’t go away. “It” being nightmarish gun violence in America.
In writing about annihilations such as this one, I would normally (strange word, that—“normally”)—I would normally jump astride one of my hobbyhorses as a mental-health reform advocate: I would renew my call for early intervention—diagnosing—as a means of thwarting people in the throes of psychosis before they act out their fantasies.
After Oxford and all its complexities, I realize that this “solution” is not enough. It may not even be attainable. Yet we have to try. We can’t go on. We’ll go on.
Instead of dashing off on the hobbyhorse, I have spent the week studying the case and renewing my layman’s education in mental illness. Here’s what has popped up:
It seems clear that the teachers and staff at Oxford High School went nearly as far down the road as humanly possible in reacting to the red alerts in Ethan Crumbley’s pre-shooting behavior. Nearly. On the day before the gunfire that left four students dead and seven wounded, a teacher spotted the 15-year-old Ethan looking at iPhone images of bullets in class. The next morning—D-Day—a teacher noticed Ethan at work on some deeply ominous sketches and writings: “The thoughts won’t stop. Help me,” and “Blood everywhere,” and “my life is useless,” and “the world is dead.” The sketches depicted a bullet and a bullet-riddled body.
The teacher reported these to a school counselor. Rushed to the counselor’s office, Ethan dismissed the materials as plans for a video game he was working on. (Police later found two videos that the 15-year-old had recorded on the Monday night before the slaughter. They showed him predicting what he was to do the following day.) The superintendent of schools called James and Jennifer Crumbley, Ethan’s now-infamous parents. In the 90 minutes it took them to arrive, school staff members observed and talked to Ethan as he sat in the office. His Christmas present lay unsuspected in his backpack. On arrival, Crumbleys were told that Ethan needed counseling. James and Jennifer shrugged it off and left. The school administration let the boy return to class. It was better, they figured, than letting him go home to an empty house.
At around 1 p.m., Ethan Crumbley began visiting classrooms.
I wrote above that the teachers and staff at Oxford High School had done “nearly” everything possible to prevent a young person in psychosis from a murderous rampage. What else might they have done? Here we enter the realm of the conjectural, and clarity is essential.
Those staff members acted—at least on the early evidence—with exceptional initiative and responsibility. Should they have gone further and called police? Perhaps. Michigan law permits protective custody and transport to a hospital by police if an officer observes behavior that suggests “a serious danger to self or others.” Would Ethan have sat and waited for the police to arrive at the school, and then thoughtfully exhibited his psychotic symptoms? Not likely, even should the officers have been trained to handle the situation, far from a foregone conclusion. As for these parents giving their permission . . . well . . .
The great, recently deceased advocate D. J. Jaffe best summed up this perverse tic of social policy:
“The law says we can’t do anything until after the psychotic victim becomes dangerous to self or others. As ludicrous as it sounds, the law requires dangerous behavior rather than prevents it.”
So there we are. And here we don’t go again.
Related to the subject of psychosis and mayhem, my week of re-education led me to an essay that merits reading by anyone interested in this issue. It has prompted me to re-think some facile assumptions I’ve let myself slip into. More on it tomorrow.