Years from now, when Americans once again analyze and try to account for yet another school shooting, the events at Great Mills High School in Maryland on March 20 about 70 miles south of Washington, D.C., in St. Mary’s County probably won’t get much space in the memory of data.
We like to go by the value of numbers. Ever since the school shooting in Columbine, Colorado, in 1999, in which 15 students, including the two perpetrators died, the media and memory places a high value on the size of the carnage, the number of dead, the caliber of the weapons — not necessarily the temperature of fear, chaos, and terror and the rippling effect of tragedy. By that measure, the death of the shooter, 17-year-old Austin Wyatt Rollins, a student at Great Mills High School— who was shot and killed by school resources officer Blaine Gaskell, a deputy sheriff’s officer and former SWAT member — and the wounding of two other students, a 16-year-old girl and a 14-year-old boy, does not rank high.
But if you watched the media coverage and proceedings during the course of the day, coming up to mid-afternoon on Tuesday, you got a sense of the devastating effect of another school shooting which has caused the American lexicon to be thickened with a new vocabulary, including “mass school shooter,” “lock down” and others.
On a day of murky weather that began with sleet and rain and will continue with a snow storm, the havoc began just before first bell at the school of 1,600 students, when Rollins fired one shot at the girl and the boy. The police resources officer confronted him and reportedly there was an exchange of shots. Details are not entirely clear as of this writing.
The incident electrified and saddened television viewers, especially in the Washington area, where there will be a massive “March for Our Lives” protest march, commemorating the 17 persons killed earlier this year at a school in Florida. It will be a march replicated all over the United States, in which gun control and school safety will be taken up by thousands of students and young people. Only days ago, students from Great Mills High Schools had joined Florida students in a protest.
Over the years, at various locations, including the wrenching massacre of young children at Sandy Hook, Connecticut, we all remember familiar sights—police and EMS vehicles descending on the site of tragedy, children running out with their hands up, distraught parents arriving at school. The number of casualties somehow never mattered. It was the anguish and fear that imbedded themselves in our memories that became lasting. Tuesday, this was also the case. It was all different and all the same, nevertheless: parents picking up their kids, the comments and quotes of officials, a governor, two senators and a congressional leader, all offering outrage, comfort and promises.
At Great Mills, you remember the ordinary—the media did not have access to the deliberation or the initial investigation. We remember EMS vehicles and the blinking lights of numerous law enforcement vehicles, the trees and cars outside the schools, the weather and its effects, cold air that looked like smoke or frantic breaths of air.
No doubt there will once again be calls for school safety. “Nobody should have to send their kids off to school and fear that they might not come back,” someone said. Sheriff Tim Cameron said, “If anyone still thinks it can’t happen here, well, it happened here.”
There is obviously an enormous amount of information that is still missing. The quick action of the school resources officer prompted praise by the media and Gaskell’s peers and was compared to the lack of action by similar officers in Florida. Investigators poured over social media records, which is today a part of any such tragedy.
Tomorrow, people will know more. But parents will remain anxious. One parent said she wasn’t bringing her child back to school and would instead go to home schooling. The students there will still have bad dreams, for now and longer than that. And years from now, when the latest shooting happens, they will remember.