Four days earlier, they had been regular high school students heading to their first-period class. That was before they suddenly found themselves hiding in darkened classrooms or crying as they crouched beneath a piano, frantically texting parents and friends about someone with a gun in their southern Maryland building.
On Saturday, as they worked their way up Pennsylvania Avenue to the March for Our Lives rally, about 100 students from Great Mills High School in St. Mary’s County put on brave faces, shouting “We Are! Great Mills!”
Some in the crowd recognized the name. “They’re from the school where someone just got shot,” one man said quietly to a friend, as the group squeezed past.
Many were friends of Jaelynn Willey, a 16-year-old sophomore who died Thursday after her family took her off life support, saying she was brain dead.
Police said Willey had been shot in the head in a hallway Tuesday just before classes started by a former boyfriend, Austin Wyatt Rollins, 17, who was firing a Glock handgun owned by his father. Rollins also died, though police haven’t said yet whether he shot himself or was killed by the armed school resource officer who confronted him. A 14-year-old, Desmond Barnes, was shot in the leg.
At the rally, the Great Mills students dressed in dark green and gold sweatshirts, many emblazoned with “Hornets Nation.” They joined in chants of “Vote them out!” and carried signs saying “Justice for Jaelynn” and “It happened at my school,” even as they were still coming to grips with what they’d just endured.
“There’s still the numbness from the shock,” said Nolin Bradley, 18, a senior.
Aaron Foreman, 46, a former Great Mills football coach, said community members and local businesses had donated sack lunches and buses for the one-hour ride from Lexington Park to the Branch Avenue Metro station.
“This is what they need right now,” Foreman said. “This is part of their healing. . . . I think as adults, it’s important they know we have their backs. Our kids from Great Mills are fresh off of this.”
Kimberly Ponce’s sign read, “Fear has no place in schools — enough!”
Ponce, 17, recounted hiding under a piano in her music class Tuesday morning, after the school’s principal, Jake Heibel, came on the intercom saying the school was on lockdown. Students learned about the shooting via Twitter and texts from friends.
“I was shaking and crying and texting my mom,” Ponce said.
She said her teacher led the class out a back door and into the rain, where police told them to run.
“We put our hands up and started running,” Ponce said. “They told us to keep running.”
Carmen Hill, 17, said she knew Willey from their fifth-period American Sign Language class, where she was a quiet, diligent student. Hill said she hoped the march would show young people that they have a voice.
And who was she hoping would hear? “The people in charge, the people in power — whoever can make a difference and make sure this doesn’t happen again,” she said.
“If they weren’t listening,” Ponce added, “they are now.”
The Great Mills group booed video footage of President Trump and officials from the National Rifle Association. They sang along to Demi Lovato and wiped away tears as a Los Angeles teenager described her brother being fatally shot.
They had spent the past week reaching out via Twitter to students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas in Parkland, Fla., where 17 people were killed last month. The Stoneman Douglas students organized the rally, and the Great Mills kids wanted to find out what to expect and what they could do to help.
Gun control is a complicated issue in St. Mary’s, they said. It’s a rural area where plenty of people like to hunt, and many parents work at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station.
Great Mills has been closed since the shooting, but students were allowed to return Friday to retrieve belongings they’d had to leave behind. Some were crying as teachers and staff members escorted them to classrooms.
Sophia Hiltz, 16, a junior, retrieved her book bag from her pre-calculus classroom, where she’d gone after mistaking the loud bang she’d heard in the hallway for someone dropping a book.
“Walking in that hallway was surreal,” Hiltz said. “I could feel my legs shaking.”
Great Mills will reopen April 3, after spring break. Going back, many said, won’t be easy.
“I’m terrified,” said Jayla Batts, 16, a junior. “It will be hard to walk into the school and act like it didn’t happen.”