After Maryland school shooting, Great Mills students join D.C. rally: 'We will march for you, Jaelynn Willey'

They woke up before sunrise and dressed in green and gold, the official colors of Great Mills High School.

A group of more than 100 students, alumni and teachers made their way from St. Mary’s County to Washington, about 60 miles away. A week ago, some of these people who flooded the nation’s capital Saturday weren’t even sure they wanted to participate in the March for Our Lives, the youth-led rally against gun violence.

But then, just a few minutes before class started at Great Mills on Tuesday, a 17-year-old boy fired his father’s gun in a first-floor hallway at the sprawling high school. Two students, including the shooter, were fatally wounded and another boy was injured.

Members of the close-knit community in Southern Maryland say the school shooting has changed them. Some said they felt obligated to march now that they too are members of the grim — yet growing — club of students who have seen blood stain the floors of their hallways, classrooms or playgrounds.

Following Baltimore and Great Mills students at March for Our Lives »

“After hitting so close to home, it becomes that much more real to us,” said 18-year-old Jillian Carty, one of the march organizers. “We want to be part of the movement to stop gun violence.”

Late Thursday night, 16-year-old Great Mills student Jaelynn Willey died after her family decided to remove her from life support. Willey was left brain-dead after the shooting, during which officials say 17-year-old Austin Wyatt Rollins targeted her with a handgun.

Rollins was then confronted by the school resource officer, and the boy later died at a hospital. There’s evidence that Rollins and Willey had “a prior relationship which recently ended,” according to the St. Mary’s County Sheriff’s Office.

A 14-year-old boy, Desmond Barnes, was also injured in the shooting but has been discharged from the hospital. The resource officer was unharmed.

When news of the girl’s death spread, Great Mills students took to social media, promising to be Willey’s voice at Saturday’s march.

As the group made their way toward the main stage Saturday, they chanted, “We are Great Mills!”

Dylan Hill, 16, walked with his arm around his classmate Zahreya Peeples as the Capitol building came into view. Tears streamed down Peeples’ face as she thought of Jaelynn, who she used to ride the bus with every day.

On Tuesday, Peeples saw her friend's body lying in the hallway as she evacuated the building.

“She still had life ahead of her,” she said. “Nobody deserves to die by a gun.”

The event was organized by Marjory Stoneman Douglas students — the survivors of the Valentine’s Day massacre in Parkland, Fla., in which 17 people were killed — who have emerged as undaunted advocates for gun policy reform.

Prior to the March For Our Lives, the Parkland students led a national school walkout on the one-month anniversary of the shooting they survived. Great Mills students were among the thousands in Maryland who left class in honor of the children and staff members killed in Florida. Less than a week later, their own school was rocked by gunfire.

Activists from Parkland have amplified the voices of Great Mills students in the days since the shooting, echoing their hope that schools will never again be the site of bloodshed.

“We will march for you, Jaelynn Willey,” tweeted Jaclyn Corin, one of the most outspoken leaders of the movement. “We will march for all the students of Great Mills who will forever be traumatized because of what happened on Tuesday.”

At one point Saturday morning, a group of maroon-clad students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School made their way through the crowd. They asked the large section of Great Mills students to part down the middle so that they could get past and up to the front.

Then, a moment recognition that comes with having your school's name in the news for all the wrong reasons.

"Oh, you guys are Great Mills?" one girl asked as she passed through. "We're Douglas."

The Great Mills students distinguished themselves in Washington, wearing green and gold face paint, beads and leggings. One of the organizers waved a giant green and gold flag. Many of the students’ signs were in honor of Willey — a common design featured a silhouette of her face and the word “Enough.”

Marianne Beaulieu has been mostly lying on her couch since Tuesday's shooting, which set off multiple panic attacks for the 16-year-old Great Mills student.

She said she hasn't been able to think about anything else — and driving through rural St. Mary's County, where there are billboards and signs advertising guns, hasn't helped. Recently, the sight of a gun is enough to bring her to tears.

She finds herself playing the "what-if" game: What if it had been my brother injured in the shooting? What if it had been me?

But standing in the crowd Saturday was cathartic, Beaulieu said. She's able to talk about what happened with a clear voice.

"I feel like I'm helping to make a change," she said. “We need to make Jaelynn’s death the last gun violence death in our schools ever.”

Libby Sanders, a 17-year-old junior, held up a sign listing the sites of school shootings since the Columbine High School mass shooting. At the very end of the list: her own school's name.

"My school shouldn't have to be part of this list," Sanders said. "It made me sick to my stomach to write Great Mills."

One of her classmates, 17-year-old Kayla Wells, said Saturday's march was about showing politicians that a new generation will soon be heading to the polls. Wells wants stricter gun control laws passed, including one that raises the minimum age to buy a weapon.

"We're about to turn 18," said the Great Mills senior. "Things are about to change."

But Great Mills organizers said they didn't come to Washington with a standard set of political beliefs or demands.

“A lot of people say it's gun reform and taking guns off the street,” Emerson Schaeffer said. “That's not why we came. We came to show support for the community that we come from.”

When, during the rally, a speaker asked the crowd to raise their hands if they've been impacted by gun violence, all the Great Mills students' hands went up.

When another speaker asked how many of them will vote in the next election, those same hands shot up once again.

trichman@baltsun.com

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