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Magruder High School student charged as adult with attempted second-degree murder

The 17-year-old Maryland student was armed with a ‘ghost gun,’ police in Montgomery County said

Students begin to be released to waiting buses after a SWAT team responded to a shooting at Magruder High School in Derwood, Md., on Jan. 21. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

A 17-year-old accused of shooting a fellow Magruder High School student was charged as an adult with attempted second-degree murder as the victim’s listed condition worsened to critical, Montgomery County police officials said Saturday.

The suspect, Steven Alston Jr., was being held without bond and is expected to appear in court Monday. Police say they believe he was armed with a “ghost gun,” a weapon assembled from parts. The proliferation of such guns, which are untraceable, has alarmed police and prosecutors around the country.

Attorneys general in D.C., Md. and Va. support lawsuit demanding ATF regulate ‘ghost guns’

It was not immediately clear if Alston had retained an attorney.

The shooting — which put the school in Derwood in lockdown for several hours while terrified parents showed up to try to get their children — comes as school shootings have soared nationwide. And it unfolded in a county that recently removed uniformed police officers, known as school resource officers, from its campuses. Such a move was reversed in October in Alexandria after a series of incidents, including one in which a student took a loaded gun to school.

Shortly before 1 p.m. Friday, Alston allegedly shot a 15-year-old, who was discovered a short time later in a bathroom by a Magruder security staffer. The victim underwent surgery Friday night, when officials described his condition as serious and stable.

Officials have said the shooting stemmed from a dispute between two students. “There is no evidence to suggest that Alston Jr. was targeting anyone else within the school,” police said in a news release Saturday.

Earlier coverage: Magruder put on lockdown after shooting

The school went into a full lockdown at 1:05 p.m. Friday, and SWAT officers soon were searching it. Detectives identified the suspect early in the incident, officials said, and “slowed down” their response. They found Alston in a classroom around 3 p.m.

Kids with guns fueled a record number of school shootings in 2021

Alston, an 11th-grader, was taken into custody without incident. The ghost gun was found near him, police said.

Alston also is charged with first-degree assault, use of a firearm in the commission of a felony/violent crime, possession of a dangerous weapon on school property, and possession of a firearm by a minor, according to police.

There were at least 42 acts of gun violence committed on K-12 campuses during regular hours in 2021, the most during any year since at least 1999, according to a Washington Post database.

The nation broke the previous record of 30 school shootings, despite most elementary and secondary campuses being closed to in-person classes for the first two months of the year. In total, about 34,000 students were exposed to gun violence in 2021, bringing the tally since the 1999 Columbine High massacre to more than 285,000.

The type of weapon used Friday — a ghost gun — is a growing concern in Montgomery County and Maryland. Just a few days ago, elected officials held a virtual news conference to call for new laws in the state to respond to such weapons.

“Unless we address, intelligently, ghost guns, all the prior legislation that we’ve passed to regulate guns in our community really becomes meaningless,” said Montgomery State’s Attorney John McCarthy (D). “Effectively banning ghost guns is the only real way to do this.”

Ghost gun parts can be ordered online. Some of the components can be made with 3D printers.

“Kids can buy them,” McCarthy said of the components. “Kids can build them. Kids can distribute them. And kids can use them.”

He said that several of the guns have been recovered in Montgomery County schools. And not only at schools.

Across the county, McCarthy said, police seizures of ghost guns jumped fivefold from 2019 to 2021.

“It’s very concerning that we’re starting to see a prevalence of ghosts guns in the hands of young people,” Montgomery County Council member Craig Rice (D-District 2) said Saturday.

In August, a 14-year-old boy in Germantown, armed with a ghost gun, opened fire while at an outdoor basketball court, killing one man and wounding three teenagers, according to police and prosecutors. That boy was charged as an adult and remains in the adult court system while his attorney seeks to move his case to juvenile court.

For two decades, Montgomery County assigned police officers to high schools to deter misbehavior and monitor and calm beefs among students. The number of school resource officers ebbed and flowed based on budget changes, but stood at 25 in early 2020. Then activists pushed back on a proposal to expand the program, citing data showing that Black and Latino students and students with disabilities were disproportionately arrested and disciplined by police in schools. That effort gained support, and at the start of the 2021-2022 school year, all SROs were removed.

A subsequent series of violent incidents at schools have been the predictable result, according to SRO proponents, including the county police union. Union spokesman Lee Holland has labeled their removal a failed social experiment.

Backers of the SRO removal have maintained that the broader goal — to have students interacting with social workers and others not in uniform, and still having trained and robust police responses to emergencies — is the better approach.