By Bruce DePuyt
Hours after a shooting at a Southern Maryland school Tuesday, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) faulted the General Assembly for not moving more quickly on school safety legislation he submitted recently. Legislative leaders and others quickly protested, accusing the first-term governor of politicizing a tragedy.
Hogan appeared alongside local officials and members of Congress in St. Mary’s County, after a 17-year-old shot two other students inside Great Mills High School. The gunman, identified as Austin Wyatt Rollins, died at the scene, though it wasn’t immediately known whether he was killed by a sheriff’s deputy serving as a school resource officer or whether he took his own life. The other students remain hospitalized.
“We need more than prayers. We need action,” Hogan said at a news conference. “We’ve got one of the most aggressive school safety plans in America that we introduced several weeks ago as emergency legislation in Annapolis, and the legislature has failed to take action on it.”
He said it’s “outrageous that we haven’t taken action yet on something so important as school safety. But we’re going to fight to make sure it gets done and we hope you will help us do that.”
Hogan’s bill was introduced on March 7, a full three weeks after a shooting at a Florida high school left 17 people dead – and eight days after the deadline for introducing legislation without having to go to the Rules Committee.
A hearing in the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee was held on March 15. The House Ways and Means Committee is scheduled to hold its hearing on Thursday.
The measure would provide $125 million to install school safety equipment and $50 million for additional school resource officers. In addition, the legislation would require localities to conduct a safety assessment and establish a school threat assessment team.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) hit back at the governor’s charge that the legislature has been unresponsive.
“The governor introduced a late-filed bill on this issue 13 days ago,” he said in a statement Tuesday. “It is unfortunate that while we are negotiating in good faith with his staff — as recently as yesterday — on this legislation that the Governor chose the site of a tragedy to criticize the legislature for school safety issues.”
“The Maryland General Assembly has already included $10 million in the budget and is working on this late-introduced legislation,” Busch said.
Responding to Busch, Douglass V. Mayer, a Hogan spokesman, said, “There is nothing unfortunate about the governor publicly fighting to protect our students and provide hundreds of millions in additional school safety funding at a time when that is exactly what is needed. In the wake of such a horrific tragedy, now is the time for unity, bipartisanship, and coming together on common sense solutions. We look forward to continuing to work with our partners in the legislature to make that happen.”
Last week, during a floor debate on Senate Bill 1122, a proposal to create a lockbox to segregate casino revenues for education, senators rejected an amendment from Sen. Gail H. Bates (R-Howard) that was substantially similar to the governor’s school safety proposal. It was rejected on a vote of 16-29, with three Democrats – Sens. James Brochin of Baltimore County, Katherine A. Klausmeier of Baltimore County and James B. Mathias Jr. of Worcester County – supporting the bill, along with every Senate Republican.
One Democratic candidate for governor who watched Hogan’s remarks on TV Tuesday, Baltimore County Executive Kevin B. Kamenetz, shared Busch’s sentiments.
“I didn’t think that that was the right time to be making politically partisan statements,” Kamenetz said in an interview. “Right now we need to acknowledge the horrific nature of the incident and value the efforts of the first responders and pray for the health of those who were injured.”
“I wouldn’t have used this opportunity to castigate the General Assembly,” he added.
Hogan’s broader crime package, which is also working its way through the legislature, would stiffen penalties for repeat offenders who commit a crime with firearm. And he supports “red flag” legislation that would make it easier for police to seize weapons from people exhibiting signs of a mental health issue.
Kamenetz agreed that more school counselors are a necessity. “The idea here is to try to identify children who are suffering from mental health issues before they wind up bringing a gun to school,” he said. “We need to continue to focus on mental health issues.”
Another Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Benjamin T. Jealous, the former head of the NAACP, said Maryland schools have been “neglected” for a long time. “We need more school counselors, social workers, psychologists. We have, unfortunately, an increasing number of isolated and disconnected young people in our schools. As long as they’re showing up, we have the opportunity to help reconnect them.”
Jealous called Hogan’s comments about the legislature “knee-jerk electioneering.”
The shooting in St. Mary’s County comes just four days before the March for Our Lives, a gathering of student protesters from around the U.S. in Washington, D.C., an event inspired by the Feb. 14 school massacre in Florida.
Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), who lives in St. Mary’s, said the incident at Great Mills High School should be a wake-up call for Congress.
“When I met with students from Maryland last week who participated in the National School Walkout, I heard in their voices a yearning for action and positive change,” he said in a statement. “They deserve an America where, in the words of one of those students, the ‘right to own an assault rifle does not outweigh our right to live.’”
According to local media reports, some students from Great Mills participated in that event.