School Climate & Safety

A School Officer Intervenes in a Shooting. And the Debate Turns to ‘Good Guy With a Gun’

By Evie Blad — March 21, 2018 7 min read
Crime scene tape is set around Great Mills High School, the scene of a shooting on March 20 in Great Mills, Md.
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A school-based sheriff’s deputy confronted a student gunman at a Maryland high school Tuesday, ending a shooting that left two other students wounded.

Authorities immediately praised the deputy as a hero who had spared the lives of countless others and whose swift action demonstrated the need for more school-based law enforcement to prevent and stop deadly shootings, like the Feb. 14 massacre in a Parkland, Fla., high school that left 17 people dead.

Police say Austin Rollins, 17, started firing a semi-automatic handgun in a hallway of Great Mills High School in Great Mills, Md., at the start of the school day. Classmate Jaelynn Willey, 16, was in critical condition Wednesday afternoon and a 14-year-old boy, who has not been named, was released from the hospital after he was treated for a leg wound, the Associated Press reported.

Rollins died after he was confronted by St. Mary’s County Deputy Blaine Gaskill, who worked as a school resource officer at Great Mills. But the precise facts of what unfolded between the SRO and the student shooter are still not clear as investigators are still determining if Gaskill shot Rollins or if Rollins killed himself, the Associated Press reports.

The whole thing was over in less than a minute, law enforcement officials said.

“This is a tough guy who closed in quickly and took the right action,” Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, said of the officer.

Within hours of the shooting, state and federal lawmakers who were already calling for putting more police in schools after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland used Gaskill as a supporting example.

And political pundits—who’ve pitched the post-Parkland debate as a binary choice between stricter gun laws and “hardening schools” with stepped-up security measures—used the Maryland shooting as evidence that they were right. On the one hand: How did Rollins get the gun to begin with? On the other hand: A “good guy with a gun” stopped the shooting.

The National Rifle Association, usually silent in the early days after school shootings, tweeted videos from its NRA TV account Tuesday, praising the actions of the officer.

“A man who wears a flag on his shoulder and a badge on his chest was able to spring into action and save countless lives,” NRA TV host Grant Stinchfield said in one video. “What happens from the mainstream media’s perspective? They don’t want to cover it.”

(The mainstream media did cover it: Outlets like the Washington Post and the Associated Press all noted Gaskill’s response.)

After the Maryland shooting, here are some things to keep in mind about the debate over police in schools.

School shootings are rarely stopped by school resource officers.

School-based law enforcement officers, often referred to as school resource officers, are more likely to be found patrolling traffic in a high school parking lot or standing in a busy hallway between class periods than stopping a crisis like a school shooting.

Though an increasing number of schools have officers, shootings at schools are statistically rare. And intervening in a fast-moving situation requires an officer to be close by and prepared for the unique complexities of each shooting event, like crowded cafeterias, shooters moving through hallways, and the response of other students to the gunfire.

So even school police who are more responsive than the sheriff’s deputy assigned to Stoneman Douglas, who’s under investigation for remaining outside of the building during the shooting there, may not be the ones to stop the gunfire.

The Washington Post analyzed every school shooting event since the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., the indelible event that changed the debate over school safety.

“Of the nearly 200 Post-identified incidents of school gunfire, only once before this week has a resource officer gunned down an active shooter,” the Post reported Wednesday. “In 2001, an 18-year-old with a 12-gauge pump-action shotgun was firing at the outside of a California high school when the resource officer rounded a corner and shot him in the face.”

Proponents of school police also pitch them as a deterrent: If would-be shooters know there’s an armed presence on campus, they are less likely to carry out their plans, they say. But both the accused Parkland shooter and the Maryland gunman had been students at the schools they attacked, and both presumably knew that there were on-site officers. Despite that, they both chose to carry weapons onto campus.

School police vs. arming teachers

Since the Parkland shooting, President Donald Trump has faced pushback for his calls to train and arm some teachers and school staff.

Schools without armed adults leave students as “sitting ducks” and “targets for sickos,” Trump has argued.

But, while some states allow teachers and staff to carry weapons, many educator groups said it is far from being a national solution to school safety concerns. Recent polls show most teachers don’t want to carry a weapon and most don’t believe doing so would make their schools safer.

Still, some advocates for arming teachers said on social media that Gaskill’s response proved the value of armed adults in schools, and they didn’t draw a distinction between badge-wearing officers and teachers with less training.

But Gaskill has even more training than many school resource officers in crisis intervention.

The deputy, who has worked at Great Mills since the start of the school year, has completed SWAT training and previously worked as a correctional officer, the Baltimore Sun reported.

Gaskill won praise in 2016 for convincing an armed man who confronted him to surrender, which was all caught on a police body camera, St. Mary’s County Sheriff Tim Cameron said.

The National Association of School Resource Officers, or NASRO, which trains school police, has spoken out against calls to arm teachers. The level of regular training required to maintain the necessary firearm skills would be a big hurdle for even interested educators, the organization has said.

Civil rights groups have concerns about police in schools

As Education Week covered in its Policing America’s Schools package last year, civil rights groups have long been concerned that an increased presence of police in schools has led to harsher school discipline and poor school climates, particularly for black and Latino students.

Only 12 states require specialized training for officers who work the school beat, according to a 2015 study by the American Institutes for Research, which means some officers have little transition between patrolling city streets and monitoring school hallways. Schools are unique environments, civil rights groups argue, requiring training in areas like teen brain development and the unique needs of students with disabilities.

NASRO encourages schools to form agreements with law enforcement agencies that outline when and how officers can intervene in student misbehavior. Officers should stay out of routine disciplinary issues, the agency says, only involving themselves in criminal matters.

But that doesn’t always happen, advocacy groups have said, pointing to higher school arrest and law-enforcement referral rates for black students than their white peers.

“Those communities do not trust police on the streets, so they will not trust police in the hallways,” Judith Browne Dianis, executive director of the Advancement Project, said this week.

School districts like Atlanta have sought to address these concerns by standing up their own independent police forces and requiring special training for school-based officers.

Gun laws vs. school safety measures

After Parkland, the choice between gun laws and school safety measures like school police is not always an either/or situation, as Florida proved.

The state moved quickly to pass a school safety bill that includes a wide range of provisions: a plan to arm some school staff, adding a police officer to every school, new restrictions on gun purchases, and funds for school safety upgrades.

Parts of the bill drew criticism and praise from groups on all sides of the debate. The NRA sued over the gun restrictions, teachers groups spoke out against armed school staff, and civil rights groups feared an uptick in school police. But families of the Parkland victims supported the bill, calling for compromise.

“I know the debate on all these issues will continue. And that’s healthy in our democracy,” Republican Gov. Rick Scott said as he signed the bill. “This is a time for all of us to come together, roll up our sleeves and get it done.”

Gaskill --St. Mary’s County Sheriff’s Office

Related reading about school police, safety, and Parkland:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.