Oxford shooting victim’s father awaits fulfillment of district promise
Steve St. Juliana recalled the visit from school officials in the days after his daughter Hana was gunned down inside Oxford High School as straightforward and short.
Then-Superintendent Tim Throne and high school Principal Steven Wolf drove to the St. Juliana home in a heavily wooded part of northern Oakland County. Along with Steve, the two men were welcomed inside by the 14-year-old's mother, Ai; older sister Reina, a junior at Oxford High, and brother Noa, a fifth-grader.
"They came inside, expressed their condolences, and that was basically the meeting. It was five minutes," Steve said.
As the St. Juliana family grieved the loss of their middle child, Steve said they waited for two things to happen: the police investigation to proceed, and the school district to make good on its December promise for an independent investigation into the Nov. 30 mass shooting that shook the Oxford community and the nation.
As the six-month anniversary of the rampage that took the lives of Madisyn Baldwin, 17; Tate Myre, 16; Justin Shilling, 17; and Hana approaches later this month, the family that has questioned the district's version of events is still waiting for answers, including about how the district will protect students going forward.
Their efforts to talk with district officials have been met with silence, Steve said, and there have been no further visits or communication about what happened or what could change to make the school safer.
Oxford school board President Tom Donnelly Jr., Superintendent Ken Weaver and school attorney Timothy Mullins did not respond to requests for comment.
School spokeswoman Danielle Stublinky said in a Monday email to The Detroit News that "to my understanding there will be an update (Tuesday) at the school board meeting regarding the third-party review."
She declined to comment on why the issue of a review isn't resolved.
Televised court hearings in January, February and March detailing the rampage became the St. Juliana family's main source of information as they waited for their school district to fully examine what happened, Steve said. The district has published updates on its website and sent emails to parents.
"I watched all of the livestreams of the court cases," Steve said. "As I learned more and more of what actually happened and just the level of negligence on the part of the school, that’s when I decided to go to the school board."
On March 14, four months after the shooting, the soft-spoken father drove to a school board meeting, waited three hours to speak during public comment and then pleaded with the school board to act.
"I asked them about the third-party review. I questioned why that had not happened yet. Why were they waiting? What are they waiting for?" Steve said.
He got no answers during the meeting and hasn't in the time since.
"It's made me very angry," Steve told The News. "I've been waiting for them to actually do something to find out what went wrong so it can be fixed so that my remaining children can go back to the school to feel safe. They are more worried about potential litigation than fixing the problems."
Reina, who survived the shooting, remains enrolled at Oxford High but moved to remote learning after the incident. Noa returned to his elementary school in the district.
Steve says he waited another month before suing the district in April, asking a judge to order a "root cause analysis" into what happened and force the district to comply with its legal obligations to safeguard the safety of its students.
"They promised immediately after (the shooting) for an in-depth review to find out what happened and to make sure it can’t happen. And here we are five months later. It's turned from a promise to find out what happened and fix it to, ‘Oh. We have to find out what it is going to cost the school in dollars.’"
Steve and Reina filed the lawsuit against the district and several officials, accusing them of manufacturing a cover story to justify letting accused shooter Ethan Crumbley remain in the building even though he was exhibiting a "disturbing pattern of behavior." That behavior included an obsession with guns, access to firearms and being in the "throes of a mental health crisis."
The district has been criticized for releasing Crumbley, an Oxford High School sophomore, back into school after he was pulled from class when a teacher saw a disturbing drawing on his desk that depicted a gun, a bullet and a bleeding shooting victim.
In response to earlier lawsuits, Oxford school officials have denied "they were negligent in any manner.” Their lawyer also has called the allegations false and said the district is immune from liability.
Last week a school board subcommittee created to consider third-party review candidates held two public meetings but has yet to formally recommend or present options to the full school board.
According to meeting minutes, the subcommittee has held discussions with four companies: New York-based Guidepost Solutions, Safe Havens International in Georgia, Baltimore-based Jensen Hughes and ATAP Security in California.
Attorney general asks again
Attorney General Dana Nessel offered to conduct an independent investigation into the events leading up to the shooting for the first time in December. The district declined.
Last month, after meeting privately with Oxford parents, Nessel called out the district's Board of Education, criticizing its lack of action and reminding board members that as elected officials they have the power to provide for the safety and welfare of students.
"To put it plainly, the families you serve want transparency and — as board members — you have an obligation to provide it," she said in the letter.
Nessel offered again to conduct an investigation, the cost of which would be borne by her office. It would also not interfere with the criminal case against Crumbley, she said. She set a May 20 deadline for the district to respond, which the district had not done as of Monday evening, Nessel spokeswoman Lynsey Mukomel said.
The St. Juliana family is not alone in demanding the school district take action. Parents of Oxford High School students and one survivor of the mass shooting made emotional pleas for improved safety measures inside the school.
Members of one parents' group have sent hundreds of emails and made repeated calls to district administrators and the Board of Education, only to be ignored and have their questions unanswered.
St. Juliana said says his experience has been frustrating and aggravating.
"It's unbelievable to me. It's exhausting to continuously go back to them and rehashing. To continuously push to make things happen. Yeah, it’s a lot," he said.
He wants to know where the district's priorities are when it comes to the safety of the students.
"This approach of 'no comment' and stonewalling and trying to push everything to the side does nothing to address the core issues of what went wrong and how do we fix it and stop it from ever happening again," he said.
'No hard and fast rule'
School shootings in Parkland, Florida, and on the campus of Virginia Tech were followed by statewide investigations.
In the wake of the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that killed 17 students and educators, Florida lawmakers created the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission that analyzed information from the shooting and made recommendations in a 458-page report.
The Virginia Tech Review Panel, commissioned by Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, reviewed the 2007 shooting that killed 32 college students and faculty. The panel issued a 260-page report that found the state's mental health laws were flawed and services for mental health users were inadequate.
Gene Deisinger, a threat management consultant for the Virginia Center for School & Campus Safety, said it is typical for independent investigations into school shootings to happen a few months after the incident.
"It's usually a couple of months after the situation is stabilized. There is no hard and fast rule," said Deisinger, who is not part of the Oxford case or investigation. "You want freshness in people's memories of not only what occurred and the individual event leading up to it."
School safety and security expert Kenneth Trump said after a school shooting, school administrations can move forward in two ways.
"Some hunker down, put on a turtle shell and go in defensive mode," said Trump, who is based in Cleveland.
"On the far extreme would be everything is wide open and thrown on the table right away. The middle is the balance you need between the two," he said.
Trump, who has worked as a civil litigation expert witness in cases including Sandy Hook, Parkland and San Bernardino, said lawsuits against Oxford schools came quickly and may have played a role in delaying a decision on a third-party review.
Trump is not a consultant for Oxford or part of any investigation into the shooting.
"This becomes an issue of walking the tight rope from the district's perspective," Trump said. "The school district may get advice from legal counsel to 'say nothing, do nothing' because that meets the liability model. That doesn't help school administration with trust, accountability and engagement."
The lawsuits will come to an end, said Trump, whose research as a doctoral student at Johns Hopkins University focuses on crisis leadership and communications.
"If you’ve lost the trust of your community, you still have long-term damage that goes beyond any long-term liability you have," he said. "The school district might win civil litigation, but they will lose public trust and credibility that has to last far beyond this. You can’t regain that."
A bipartisan task force was created in January by the Michigan House of Representatives to study safety in schools. It plans to recommend policy solutions to prevent further violence.
Task force member state Rep. Luke Meerman, R-Coopersville, said the role of the task force is not to investigate.
"We are looking to propose changes to the law and ... trying to beef up school mental health," Meerman said. "Talking to school administrators and the state police, our main question is, 'How do we do this better and what is missing?'"
Meerman said the task force is about a month away from issuing a report to the House speaker that is based on interviews with 30 groups it met with, including Throne, who has since retired, and Oxford parents. He expects the report will become public but could not say when.
Asked if Gov. Gretchen Whitmer would like to see a statewide commission investigate the Oxford High School shooting, spokesman Bobby Leddy declined to address the question. He said the governor has prioritized increased school safety measures in her proposed budget, including increasing school safety grants from $10 million this year to $51 million for next year.
Advocacy and memorials
Reina has taken the lead in advocating for legislation that would require gun owners to securely store their firearms and help prevent access to them by minors.
In February, she gathered with lawmakers in Lansing to voice her support for a bill that was introduced in the House and Senate in June, saying it is a "common-sense" bill that could have prevented the Oxford tragedy.
The four-bill package introduced in both chambers would require guns to be safely stored in a secure lockbox or locked with a locking device.
She has also been vocal about establishing a permanent memorial for her sister and the others killed.
The district removed a temporary memorial in January that was located outside the high school. Reina has been asking district officials to work with her family and the families of other victims to get input on what the permanent memorial should look like and where it should be placed.
"It’s now past five months and there is nothing up in the school. All photos (were) taken down of the four students," Reina said.
"Even now I've asked for meetings with the administration of when the committee is going to be made and their response was spring or early summer. It's spring and there is no committee. I think the families should definitely be a part of this committee," she said.
On Friday, the school district issued a statement saying it is moving forward with a memorial that will consist of a banner in the school gym and a sign in the senior courtyard.
The banner in the gym will contain hearts and the names of Hana, Justin, Madisyn and Tate, the statement said, and the sign in the senior courtyard will contain a short remembrance from each of the families.
"All four families wrote the remembrance concerning their child. Due to the emotional impact of this memorial, it was difficult to decide on its location. After much thought and consideration, we selected the courtyard location because it is symbolically the heart of the school," the statement said.
The idea of placing a memorial for students killed in the shooting in the same courtyard where a former high school student dumped a deer head, in the months before the attack, does not sit well with the St. Juliana family, Steve said.
The family has erected a memorial in their home for Hana and is planning another one where her sports jerseys will be framed and hung.
"Hana, she was such a bright personality. Tremendous balance between kind and sarcastic and mischievous," Steve said. "She truly was a bright light in our lives and anybody that met her."
Reina said Hana gave her everything, whether on the volleyball and basketball court with teammates or in her unconditional love of her family.
Steve said the district's inability to simply erect a proper memorial within five months speaks volumes of its inability to face the tragedy and take responsibility for what went wrong.
"I honestly believe it fits into the bigger narrative of wanting to push this to the side and move on," Steve said. "Compare this to what Clarkston has done."
A mural was painted by artist Zach Curtis on a wall inside a Clarkston school where Madisyn Baldwin attended classes before coming to Oxford High. Curtis said in a Facebook post that he was asked to paint Madisyn but added Hana, Tate and Justin on his own into the mural.
"So why can Clarkston have a mural the size of an entire wall in their school of Madisyn, and five months later we still have nothing?"