School Officials Had Legal Right To Search Shooter's Backpack. Why Didn't They?

School Officials Had Legal Right To Search Shooter's Backpack. Why Didn't They?
AP Photo/Paul Sancya

Earlier today in my post about the parents of the suspected school shooter (whose name will not be used here), I noted that while the couple certainly appear to have opened themselves up to criminal liability by their own actions, there were deeply troubling questions about why the school never searched the suspect’s backpack themselves. Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald blamed the parents for not going through their son’s bag during the meeting with school counselors when she announced involuntary manslaughter charges last Friday, but there was also an Oakland County sheriff’s deputy stationed at the school that day. Why didn’t the school ask the deputy to search the suspect’s bag or locker?

According to McDonald, it wasn’t because the school didn’t have the power or authority to do so.

School officials in Michigan had legal grounds to search shooting suspect [name redacted by Bearing Arms] backpack and locker but did not do so, Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald told CNN on Monday.

“We don’t know exactly if that weapon was in his bag, where it was, we just know it was in the school and he had access to it,” McDonald told CNN’s Brianna Keilar.

When asked if school staff members might be prosecuted, McDonald replied, “We haven’t ruled out charging anyone.”

So why didn’t the school search the suspect’s bag and/or his locker? One of the big reasons appears to be that the school counselor who met with the suspect and his parents on the morning of the shooting escalated their own investigation to include any of high school’s assistant principals or the deputy.

Oxford Community Schools in Michigan has requested an independent third-party investigation of Tuesday’s shooting at Oxford High School, Superintendent Tim Throne said in a letter addressed to the Oxford school community Saturday.

Throne provided details on “the school’s version of events” in the letter, highlighting shooting suspect [name redacted]’s movements leading up to and during the shooting.

Tuesday morning, after a teacher alerted school counselors and the Dean of students about concerning drawings and written statements made by the suspect, he was “immediately removed from the classroom” and taken to a guidance counselor’s office, Throne explained in the letter. A day earlier, the student was discovered viewing images of ammunition on his cell phone during class and said it was for his family’s shooting hobby, the letter said.

The suspect told a school counselor the drawing was for a video game he was designing, Throne said. Guidance counselors monitored the student in their office as they unsuccessfully tried to reach his parents for an hour and a half, the letter said.

After the parents were contacted and arrived, counselors asked questions about the student’s capacity for harm, and the family’s answers “led counselors to again conclude he did not intend on committing either self-harm or harm to others,” the letter said.

School counselors told the parents they had 48 hours to seek counseling for their son, otherwise the school would have to contact Child Protective Services, the letter reads. When asked to take their child home for the rest of the day, Throne said the student’s parents “flatly refused,” leaving their son behind to “return to work.”

I still don’t understand why the decision was made to give the suspect’s parents 48 hours to provide proof of counseling or else have CPS called (original reports, by the way, were that the ultimatum was that the suspect had two days to get into counseling or else he’d be unable to return to the school) rather than to tell the parents “your kid can come back once we know he’s getting counseling.” The school says they made the decision to keep him on the premises after his parents “flatly refused” to take him home, but that doesn’t explain why they decided to just let him go about his business instead of keeping him in the office or somewhere else where an adult could have kept an eye on him at all times.

I’m filling in for the vacationing Larry O’Connor on WMAL in Washington, D.C. this week, and when I spoke with former U.S. Attorney Joe DeGenova about this case on the show this morning, he blamed the school’s lackadaisical approach on “restorative justice” policies that try to keep law enforcement away from students at all costs in hopes of disrupting the “school to prison pipeline”. It does indeed appear that the school district was using those policies and practices at the time of the shooting.

None of this takes away from the responsibility borne by the suspect’s parents, and certainly not from the suspect himself, who is the person most responsible for his horrific acts. But the school district has its own culpability here, and don’t tell me we can’t find a reasonable common ground between suspending kids for accidentally showing a BB gun for a split second while in an online class and letting a kid who’s been caught writing about the voices in his head telling him to shoot people go back to class without ensuring that he doesn’t actually have a weapon on him first. I’m not a fan of stop-and-frisk, but this wasn’t some random pat down of students we’re talking about. It would not only have been simple, but reasonable for the deputy to search the suspect’s backpack and locker, and if no gun had been found it should have been a non-issue.

As we know, that isn’t what happened. It may very well be that the school counselor who handled the suspect was merely following standard procedures, but if that’s the case then we will have once again seen the failure of a school district’s policy (along with the failures by the family unit) play out with catastrophic results. Whether it was an institutional failure or a mistake by an individual school employee, it seems to me that it’s a failure that can be prevented in the future with a little common sense; if you’ve just had a meeting about whether a student poses a threat to themselves or someone else, don’t take their word (or the word of their parents) that they’re okay. Check to make sure they’re not carrying a weapon of any kind before you send them on their way.

Yes, I know that some sociopathic sophomore could use a sharpened pencil or the pointed end of a compass from Geometry class to cause physical harm as well. I’m well aware that we can’t completely negate all risks to our personal safety, even with the tightest of security. And no, I don’t think this same lowered standard of Fourth Amendment rights should extend to all students or be applied as general principle to the public at large. But under these specific circumstances, where the law already allows for these types of searches, I think they should be done as a matter of course, and the fact that it didn’t happen here is deeply troubling. So too is the thought that these same hands-off policies, even in limited circumstances and with reasonable cause for concern, are in place in school districts all across the country.