When the commotion about someone with a gun began Tuesday, Isiah Tichenor, 18, stepped into the hallway at Great Mills High School to pull shut his classroom’s door but instead found himself watching the climax of a school shooting.
He said he saw a classmate with a gun to his own head as a school resource officer rounded a corner at the Southern Maryland school. Tichenor ducked back inside the classroom as he heard shouting.
“Put the gun down!” the officer yelled. “We know you don’t want to hurt anyone.”
The officer ordered the student to drop the gun again before two shots sounded, marking the end of the latest school shooting in a nation weary of them. The shooter, identified as Austin Wyatt Rollins, 17, was hit and later died at a hospital. A female and a male student, ages 16 and 14, were injured and hospitalized.
The shooting, which played out against a rancorous national debate over arming teachers and putting more officers in schools to prevent school shootings, was notable because authorities credited St. Mary’s County Deputy Blaine Gaskill with possibly saving lives by quickly engaging the shooter.
“This is a tough guy who closed in quickly and took the right action,” Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said of Gaskill, assigned to Great Mills as a school resource officer.
The motive for the shooting remains under investigation, but St. Mary’s County Sheriff Timothy K. Cameron said detectives are exploring whether a prior relationship between Rollins and the female victim played a role.
The shooting comes days before thousands are expected in Washington for Saturday’s March for Our Lives rally, a march against gun violence and school shootings. It came about after a gunman took 17 lives at a high school in Parkland, Fla., last month. Hogan said he would push emergency legislation to improve school safety in the wake of the incident.
“It is an exceptionally tragic day,” said James Scott Smith, the superintendent of St. Mary’s schools. “If you don’t think this can happen at your school, you are sadly mistaken. We are shaken, but we are very strong in St. Mary’s.”
Cameron said Rollins pulled out a semiautomatic Glock handgun in Hallway F as classes were getting underway at 7:55 a.m. Tuesday at the school of 1,600. Rollins shot the female victim, sending students and staff scrambling for cover.
Cameron said they quickly notified Gaskill, who is the only school resource officer stationed at Great Mills and was assigned there in August. Gaskill is also a member of the local SWAT team and joined the sheriff’s office six years ago.
Gaskill followed Rollins down the hallway before each fired at nearly the same moment, Cameron said.
Rollins may have shot himself, or Gaskill’s bullet may have hit him, but the whole incident lasted less than a minute, Cameron said.
Authorities initially said Rollins shot the male victim after shooting the female victim but later said they needed to investigate further before determining whether he shot both.
Authorities are reviewing video footage from the school to get a better sense of how the incident unfolded. Still, Cameron said, there was “no question” the situation would have been worse if the officer had not confronted the shooter.
MedStar St. Mary’s Hospital said in a statement that the 14-year-old boy was in “good condition” with a thigh injury. The 16-year-old girl was stabilized and transferred to the University of Maryland Prince George’s Hospital Center, where she remained in critical condition.
Cameron said authorities had not received any warnings about Rollins before the shooting but were searching his home, electronic devices and more in search of clues to what prompted the shooting.
After the shooting, Tichenor said, he ran away from the closed classroom door. He and about 20 other students waited in a backroom area for about 10 minutes, until a police officer knocked and told students they could come out.
“You could look over and still see the blood on the ground,” he said.
The school was placed on lockdown as the situation unfolded, and parents were warned to stay away. News video from the scene showed police cruisers with lights whirring outside the school, while other vehicles could be heard racing toward the school.
Isaiah Quarles, a 10th-grader, was walking to his first-period class Tuesday. He didn’t hear a gunshot but saw a girl falling to the ground, he said later. He thought she had fainted but said he then heard screams and shouts and someone yelling about a gun.
“Everyone started running, and I started running, too,” Quarles said. “I was scared.”
The 16-year-old ran to his class. His teacher remained calm, he said, and soon there was an announcement on the public address system. “Our principal said there was a lockdown but no one was going to be harmed,” Quarles said.
Tyriq Wheeler, 17, was headed to English class when he heard a bang. He hustled to class after he heard someone was shot.
The lockdown was announced once he had made it to the classroom, where blinds were lowered and the door locked. Students pulled out their phones, contacting their parents and checking the news.
Wheeler remembered thinking, “Is this really happening?”
Last week, Wheeler walked out with other Great Mills students to protest gun violence because “kids shouldn’t be taken from the world so early.”
On Tuesday, as he was picked up from a nearby high school, he said: “I’m grateful I’m still alive. I’m grateful that I can see my mother and sister, and, to be honest, I just want to get home.”
Wheeler’s mother, Darlena Montague, said she was born and raised in the District but wanted to raise her son in Southern Maryland because it was safer.
“This is just scary to me,” she said. “Things can happen anywhere.”
At nearby Leonardtown High School, where parents were told to meet their children, cars crowded in front of the school as parents arrived.
Jordan Hutchinson, 14, attends Fairlead Academy but waits for his bus at Great Mills in the mornings, he said. He was in the school lobby when he heard gunshots and ran for the bus parked outside.
“I was shook, at first,” he said. “Then I got on the bus and started yelling at the bus driver.”
Jordan’s mother, Latoya Mason, also has a son who attends Great Mills. Bullying has been a problem there, she said.
Her son was not physically hurt in the shooting, she said, but is emotionally distraught. “He told me he’s not okay, and he needs to talk to someone about it,” Mason said.
Mason said her children knew Rollins from the neighborhood. They grew up attending birthday parties together, riding bikes and playing in the woods.
“I have seen a lot of horrible things being said about that kid,” she said in an interview. “I just think it was very bad decision-making. It’s really hard to even speak on it. . . . He’s not a bad kid, and he doesn’t come from a bad home.”
Mason said Rollins was a quiet kid who was never disrespectful. Her kids began to drift away from Rollins, who was a senior in high school, as he became older and began to drive.
“In five years, I never suspected that he was depressed or going through things,” the 34-year-old said. “It’s sad that it had to go this way. I thought Austin was a bright kid with a bright future.”
Hogan’s bill, which was introduced earlier this month, had a hearing in the Senate last week and the House Ways and Means Committee is scheduled to take up the measure on Thursday.
Parents at the school became worried after a Feb. 20 Snapchat post that warned students of a possible shooting, according to TheBayNet.com.
In response to the report of a threat, the principal, Jake Heibel, sent a message to parents and told of a report of a student in a hallway mentioning a shooting. He said it had been investigated and “the threat was not substantiated.”
The school held a public meeting this month to discuss the threat, he said. Cameron said Tuesday’s shooting had no connection to that incident.
Hogan said he would prod the Maryland legislature to approve a $125 million package that would provide more school resource officers, metal detectors, cameras, mental health counselors and other tools to combat school shootings. It was initially proposed after the Parkland school shooting on Feb. 14.
Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) said, “having a trained, professional school resource officer made a difference ... armed school resource officers are available in our high schools and that’s important.” But he said, “We need common sense gun safety legislation.”
House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), whose district includes St. Mary’s County, canceled his usual weekly briefing on Capitol Hill to go to the county to meet with parents at a center close to the Leonardtown High School. Hoyer tweeted that his prayers “are with the students, parents, and teachers” at Great Mills.
Toni Foreman, who lives across the street from Rollins, said he appeared to be a happy, friendly child who often played with her children and was always ready to help neighbors shovel snow after a storm. He would play football with her 13-year-old son, and the two would often walk home from school together.
“We never had any issues with him whatsoever,” Foreman said.
“He was always a nice person,” said her son, Ivan.
Foreman said that Rollins’s parents were also friendly and that there was no indication of trouble.
“I know they didn’t raise him that way,” Foreman said.
Foreman had to pick up her own son from school early since several campuses were on lockdown. Like many parents, she called for action from legislators.
“What’s next, world? What do we need to do so our kids can be safe and go to school? How many more kids have to die?”
Lynh Bui, Dana Hedgpeth, Rachel Weiner, Joe Heim, Jennifer Jenkins, Rachel Chason and Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.