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Tribune News Service

Michigan attorney general blasts Oxford schools for delaying investigation into mass shooting

LANSING, Mich. — Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel on Wednesday accused the Oxford Board of Education of being "more focused on limiting liability" than responding to the concerns of the community and investigating the events that led up to the Nov. 30 mass shooting at the Oakland County district.

While school officials had initially promised a prompt review of Michigan's deadliest school shooting, Oxford school board President Tom Donnelly said Tuesday such a review would not be conducted until civil litigation and criminal cases are over.

Donnelly also said the district was again declining an offer from Nessel to do the third-party review of the shooting in which four students were killed and six students and a teacher were wounded.

"Given the nature and the breadth of the current criminal and civil proceedings, the review of the tragedy and associative events of Nov. 30, 2021, will not occur until the criminal and civil litigations are complete," Donnelly said Tuesday during a school board meeting. "Once the litigation process is completed and all information has risen to the surface, a team of experts will conduct a third-party review. Our subcommittee has begun the process of vetting.”

Donnelly said the Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald and Sheriff Michael Bouchard have information about the incident that the district does not have.

"It would be ill-advised for us to start a third-party investigation if we don't know the facts," said Donnelly, who acknowledged that many in the community have demanded that the district begin a review of what happened on Nov. 30 and what can be done to prevent it from recurring.

Nessel said she was "deeply disappointed by the school board’s repeated rejection of my offers" to conduct an independent review of the events of the days preceding the incident.

"My goal is not to assign blame but to help identify ways to improve school safety for Oxford and all schools in Michigan," Nessel said in the statement. "The school board’s unwillingness to partner with my department on this effort flies in the face of transparency. The rejection sends a message that the board is more focused on limiting liability than responding to the loud outcry from the Oxford community to deliver greater peace of mind to the students, parents and educators that lived through this traumatic event."

Nessel, who met privately with parents last month, said she would return to the community to "be a resource."

“My department can only perform an exhaustive and thorough review when we have the full cooperation of the school board and district. Absent that partnership, I am restricted to the publicly available information we have all read and reviewed. This latest setback does not deter my efforts to share best practices across our state in order to help all schools improve the safety and security of their learning environments,” Nessel said.

The district is facing at least four state and federal lawsuits over the shooting.

"I know it's wanted. It's wanted by us as well," Donnelly said. "We still want to get it done. We are not changing anything. We are evolving on how this should be accomplished. We are modifying it."

Donnelly said the district never defined the third-party process in December when it committed to undertake one. He said he sees the review as having two key components: the Nov. 30 tragedy and the district’s three-year recovery plan, which is now under development by Superintendent Ken Weaver and his administration.

“We see this as several independent reviews, not one,” Donnelly said.

Several parents, including Steve St. Juliana, the father of Hana St. Juliana, one of four high school students killed in the rampage, have said they are outraged no independent investigation has been conducted nearly six months after the shooting.

"I think that the board’s decision speaks volumes on its own as to its priorities," St. Juliana said.

Lori Bourgeau, the parent of an Oxford High School student, said the district’s decision tells her everything she needs to know.

“We need protection from your poor judgment,” Bourgeau said. “You should all resign immediately and allow board members who have our students' safety and security as a top priority step in and take over because you are clearly concerned about you and not us.”

Lawsuits stemming from mass school shootings could take years to resolve.

In March, the Department of Justice announced it had settled the 40 civil cases arising out of the February 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Survivors of the shooting and the families of 16 people killed sued the government for damages, according to a statement by the department. The litigation began in late 2018.

According to The Associated Press, families of nine victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting agreed in February to a settlement of a lawsuit against the maker of the rifle used to kill 20 first graders and six educators in 2012.

The families and a survivor of the shooting sued Remington in 2015.