Are Their Parents Responsible?

Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold fired the shots, but are their parents in some way responsible for the teen-ager's shooting spree? The killers cannot be charged, but in the rush to place blame after the Columbine High School massacre, the parents who raised them could be on trial, reports CBS News Correspondent Anthony Mason.

Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, appearing on CBS News Face the Nation a few days after the tragedy, said, "If the parents are thought by the authorities to reasonably have been expected to know, the possibility of them being charged in some way is certainly very real."

And they could be in a lot of trouble. That's because Colorado's parental responsibility law makes parents legally liable for their children's crimes.

At least 16 states have laws which hold parents criminally responsible. In Illinois, TCF Bank is using the law to sue parents of several teen-agers for $90,000 their children allegedly stole.

Attorney Charlie Stone represents one of the families being sued by the bank. He says, "In this case, the bank is taking the concept of parental responsibility too far. In this situation, when the parents had no knowledge beforehand, or after, it seems bizarre to hold them responsible."

But John Paone, a family law attorney, disagrees. "I believe the buck stops with the parents," he says. "They are responsible for the actions of their children in the way they supervise, the way they are brought up and they way they are exposed to society."

The movement to hold parents more accountable for their children is in many ways a cry for help, a desperate effort to curb juvenile crime. And as lawmakers push to punish parents for their children's crimes, some challenge whether the courts are justified.

Helen Newton paid a hefty price for failing to control her child. In March, she was sentenced to 15 days in jail because her teen-age daughter was a chronic truant. Newton says "I feel like I, as her mother, did everything I could for her to go to school. The only thing putting me in jail for 15 days did was separate us, that was it. I don't think she's gotten any help."

Some believe these tougher laws may ultimately hurt families.

Emily Buss, of the University of Chicago Law School, says, "Imposing liability on parents cold easily drive a wedge between parents and children where we most care about maintaining and shoring up that relationship."

And when the courts attempt to hold parents accountable, it isn't always effective.

Two years ago, a Michigan jury found Anthony and Susan Provenzino guilty of failing to control the criminal behavior of their teen-age son, Alex. Alex has since been accused of committing more crimes, and the parents' conviction was overturned on appeal.

Paone says, "It is not clear that the law will succeed in changing behavior of all parents, but I think it will be a clear call to everyone that there is responsibiliy. It's not only a moral one but it is a also a legal one, and if you do not honor that responsibility, you yourself can be held responsible for damages in some way"

©1998, CBS Worldwide Inc., All Rights Reserved