Clarksburg High School sophomore Victoria Smith says it’s difficult to feel safe at school when she thinks about shootings like the one that occurred at Col. Zadok Magruder High School in January and others that have occurred nationwide.
“I mean, I do feel safe sometimes, but when you think about it in class you just think, oh, what if someone just walks in with a gun? What if someone has a gun right now?” she said.
Smith was one of about 2,000 students who attended assemblies led by Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy at Clarksburg on Friday to educate teens about youth gun violence.
Clarksburg was the latest county high school to host the assemblies by McCarthy, who is hopeful that students who attended will be more proactive in approaching police or other trusted adults when they see a weapon on campus.
The State’s Attorney’s Office announced earlier this month that it was partnering with MCPS to hold the assemblies at all county high schools to educate teens about gun violence amid a rise in gun seizures in the county, particularly unserialized “ghost” guns.
The assemblies come after the shooting at Magruder High School in Derwood that critically injured a student and placed the school on lockdown for several hours. A fellow student was charged with attempted murder. After the Magruder shooting, police criticized students for not reporting the shooting immediately to authorities, and instead posting about it on social media.
During one of Friday’s assemblies at Clarksburg High, McCarthy told students that he admired the youthful energy of the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., who advocated for gun safety after 17 people at their school were killed by a gunman in February 2018.
“I don’t think you can be safe unless you engage every member of the community,” he said.
McCarthy said he worries about local shootings that have occurred in which no one called the police.
“We’ve had shootings that have occurred in this community, [where] 25, 30 rounds are fired and no one calls the police. No one talks to us. Does that make us safer? It doesn’t make us safer. We need your help,” he said.
This year, 907 guns have been seized in the county as of Sept. 11, according to McCarthy’s office. Of those, 148 were ghost guns, he said. The number of ghost guns seized through Sept. 11 compares to:
- 16 ghost guns seized in all of 2019
- 56 ghost guns seized in all of 2020
- 71 ghost guns seized in all of 2021
McCarthy told the students that one of the first homicides involving a ghost gun in Montgomery County occurred last year at a recreation center in Germantown, in which police say a 14-year-old boy allegedly killed one and injured three.
“I’m terrified by ghost guns,” said McCarthy, noting that they often fall into the hands of people who are prohibited from having guns due to convictions for prior violent crimes.
McCarthy applauded the two students who reported to a parent and school administrators when they thought they saw a gun at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School on Sept. 14. The school was on lockdown for about an hour while police searched for a weapon. None was found.
“I think they did the right thing,” he said.
“We’ve unfortunately, sadly, had situations where guns have been used in our schools, and that was not the reaction. That’s not who we are.”
During the presentation, McCarthy included a slide with information about the Safe Schools Maryland tip line – an anonymous reporting system in which students, teachers and members of the public can report safety concerns, including mental health concerns (the number is 1-833-MD-B-SAFE and is active 24 hours a day).
McCarthy said he wants people to use the tip line to help prevent incidents before they occur.
“My favorite number is zero. If I had no gun cases to prosecute, I’d be the best state’s attorney in America,” he said.
During one of two assemblies, Principal Edward Owusu said the first ghost gun arrest in the county occurred at Clarksburg High. Owusu said he wished at the time that more people had spoken up sooner.
Owusu said he is haunted by the memory of attending the funerals of students who attended other schools where he has worked.
“I don’t want to come to any of you all’s funerals. I’d rather come to your weddings,” he said.
After the assembly, Owusu told Bethesda Beat that when he was a teacher at James Hubert Blake High School in Silver Spring, a student was shot and killed in Washington, D.C., two months after graduating.
Owusu said he never imagined a day in which high schoolers would be discussing their fears about gun violence.
“When I was in high school … [the number of incidents with guns] was nowhere near this. This was nowhere on the radar. And now for it to be relatively easy to get or assemble a ghost gun is scary,” he said.
Sabrin Niamathullah, a junior who is president of the school’s Student Government Association (SGA), said after the assembly that she hopes students advocate for stricter gun control measures.
Niamathullah said normally she feels safe in her school — unless the topic of gun violence is brought up in conversation.
“As a student, I feel like we don’t think about our own safety when we walk into this building. We’re thinking about our homework. We’re thinking about our assignments. And by asking that question, it kind of makes me think, ‘should I be more worried?’ ” she said.
McCarthy told Bethesda Beat that he has presented at about five county high schools so far and the feedback has been positive, although it’s too soon to measure what type of impact the assemblies will have.
“Our goal obviously is to make the learning environments of our schools, particularly in the high school level, to be as safe as humanly possible,” he said.
Dan Schere can be reached at Daniel.firstname.lastname@example.org