SILVER SPRING — Students from Great Mills High School in St. Mary’s County, where a student fatally wounded a classmate with a gun before taking his own life, addressed County residents and public officials at a school safety meeting at the People’s Community Baptist Church in Silver Spring Wednesday night.
The event was sponsored by the Pray at the Pump Movement, a faith-based activist group founded by Rocky Twyman, a veteran of the Civil Rights Movement.
Great Mills student LeAire Livingston described her harrowing encounter with the gunman, Austin Rollins, shortly after he shot 16-year-old Jaelynn Willey, with whom he had previously been in a relationship. Another student, Desmond Barnes, was shot in the leg, but survived.
“Coming around the corner, I bumped into Austin and I was about to apologize when I looked up and saw that he had a gun to his head,” Livingston said. “We hadn’t had a drill or anything, so I didn’t know what to do and I just stood there in place for a moment. When I realized this was actually happening, I turned around and ran into a classroom.”
Willey was taken off life support two days later. Rollins took his own life with a gunshot to the head after exchanging fire with school resource officer Blaine Gaskill.
“One officer is not enough for 15,000 students,” Livingston said. “’School’ and ‘shooting’ do not belong in the same sentence next to each other. I’m tired of seeing school shootings on the news almost every day.”
“Austin was a good friend of mine,” said Newell Rand, a Great Mills graduate who attended the event. “I had a class with him my junior year. We used to laugh and giggle over a lot of stupid things, we hated the tedious projects we’d get in class. But Austin was a very good listener and he was a person who wanted to know what was going on so he could help you.”
In the aftermath of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which claimed the lives of 17 students, a wave of student-led activism demanding action on school safety has swept the nation, which led to the March For Our Lives demonstration on March 24 in Washington, D.C. and other major cities. At Wednesday’s event, several public officials addressed efforts to prevent future gun violence in schools. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) discussed the difficulty of passing legislation to create a national registry, ban assault weapons, and close loopholes that allow guns to be purchased at gun shows.
“We need the Trump who went before the cameras, and said he wasn’t afraid of the NRA, we need him to call some Republican senators and tell them to get on board,” Van Hollen said, referring to President Donald Trump’s remarks in favor of gun control in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting, from which he later backpedaled.
“We need to make sure that we send the signal that the NRA lobby is not going to have its day anymore in the United States Congress,” Van Hollen said. “That will happen not in one week or two weeks, but through a series of elections. There’s going to be a number of important elections for the United States Senate and House of Representatives where you’re going to have one candidate who’s pro-gun lobby and another candidate who wants to have sensible national gun laws. It will send a powerful signal in races where there’s that choice if we can elect the candidate who stands for common sense gun safety.”
Montgomery County Police Chief J. Thomas Manger praised the efforts of student activists.
“I recall vividly the massacre at Columbine High School and I recall vividly the slaughter of young babies at Sandy Hook,” Manger said. “I said to myself, ‘This is where it stops, this is what’s going to bring change, those 26 children who were killed,’ and it didn’t. It didn’t bring change. But I will tell you something. What you all are doing is making things happen.” Manger praised the efforts of students at Montgomery Blair High School, his alma mater, to call attention to gun violence. He also referred to the proposal advanced by several gun ownership advocates to prevent future shooting by issuing firearms to teachers as, “The single dumbest idea I have ever heard in my 40 years as a police officer,” noting that if teachers were armed, that would make it difficult for police officers responding to a shooting to determine who the active shooter is.
Board of Education President Michael Durso and Student member Matthew Post also attended the event.