The Tarrant County District Attorney’s office brought charges against only one person after two people were injured during an October shooting at a high school in Arlington — an 18-year-old student.
That approach could change after the parents of a student who allegedly shot and killed four classmates in a Michigan high school were charged with involuntary manslaughter. Experts consider this to be a rare move.
Legal and political experts in North Texas say, at the moment, it’s murky whether parents and school officials will be criminally charged in future shootings. However, they expect more civil lawsuits against school officials.
David Coale, a Dallas-based appellate lawyer, considers the Michigan case to be a one-off example. The charge requires a high burden of proof of criminal wrongdoing.
Still, Coale expects district attorneys across Texas to watch the proceedings. More liberal counties will look for what works and doesn’t in Michigan to see if it can be a model for future school shootings, he said.
Conservatives would take a different approach, Coale said. Because Republicans dominate the Legislature, the lawyer could see lawmakers attempt to propose laws to protect gun owners whose weapons were taken by a family member and used in a mass shooting.
“It’s very likely that someone will introduce a bill like this because people introduce bills all the time,” Coale said. “Whether it becomes the law or not? It’s hard to say. Even in Texas, it’s politically charged because these facts are so unusual.”
Thomas Marshall, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, wasn’t as convinced legislators would react in the way Coale described. Marshall’s rationale comes down to two things: One, the case is in Michigan, and, two, the Legislature won’t meet for a regular session until early 2023.
“It’s hard for me to imagine the Legislature creating an exemption for a school shooting that might be an exemption from criminal negligence,” Marshall said. “It’s almost beyond my imagination that they would go that far.”
Current law is reluctant to hold people criminally responsible for negligent actions, Coale said.
“The more interesting question is civil liability for school districts here,” Coale said.
In Michigan, prosecutors have left open the possibility of school officials facing charges because of potential missteps leading up to the recent shooting. Coale sees this case establishing steps that could open school districts up for civil lawsuits.
“Civil law is going to second-guess you pretty hard after this because this case sort of sets out a list of every possible red flag, and if school officials don’t follow up on them, they’re going to get sued civilly.”
Under Texas law, it is possible for a parent to be charged in a school shooting, said Jim Hudson, a Tarrant County assistant criminal district attorney.
“The devil is in the details,” Jim Hudson, an assistant criminal district attorney, told the Fort Worth Report.
One option would be to charge a parent with making a firearm accessible to their child, a Class C misdemeanor. However, if a child shoots a person and either hurts or kills them, the charge would be upgraded to a Class A misdemeanor. Hudson characterized this as not being a very serious offense in the eyes of Texas law.
“If you have the right facts, though, it’s possible there could be more serious charges that could be considered by a prosecutor,” Hudson said.
Prosecutors could consider a manslaughter charge for a parent. That means a person recklessly caused someone’s death after disregarding a substantial and unjustifiable risk, Hudson said. Manslaughter, a second-degree felony, often is used when a drunken driver kills a person.
Criminally negligent homicide is a similar charge a prosecutor could seek.
“It’s a catch-all offense for death cases that aren’t necessarily intentional,” Hudson said. “If you caused somebody’s death through criminal negligence, it is when you ought to have been aware of the risk you were taking — not that you weren’t aware, but should have been aware.”
Marshall, the political scientist, said any policy change likely won’t emerge until the Michigan parents go through court and receive a conviction. Even then, he said, politicians will be more concerned with next year’s elections.
“This is one that we wait and see on as to what happens in mid-2022,” he said.
Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.