Col. Zadok Magruder High School Credit: Christine Zhu

On the morning of Jan. 21, Himanshu Gediya was thinking about his grades. The end of the quarter was approaching and the senior was trying to stay on track for college. 

By early afternoon, hiding in art class as police swarmed his high school in Derwood, schoolwork was the least of his worries. 

“I think there’s a shooter in the school,” he texted his parents. And later: “I love you,” just in case.  

All he knew then was that someone had been shot somewhere in Col. Zadok Magruder High School. Lee Evans, the school’s principal, usually stoic and collected, had come over the intercom minutes before, flustered and short of breath, ordering classrooms to go into lockdown. 

The tone of his voice was the first sign that something was really wrong — that it wasn’t just a drill. But, aside from media reports that students read on the glowing screens of smartphones in locked classrooms with dimmed lights, information about just how serious the situation was and the extent of the danger wasn’t clear. 

It was that uncertainty of not knowing what had happened that students remember now — more than six months after the first school shooting in the history of Montgomery County Public Schools. A threat of danger in a place that is supposed to be safe has lingered long after the gunman was arrested, police cleared the building and the community’s attention shifted to other issues — and some students are pressing for a long-term investment in mental health resources. 

Most in the building that day didn’t know for hours that a student had been shot by another student in a bathroom during a fight. The lockdown lasted for five hours. 

Josh Lopez, a rising senior at Magruder, recalled those hours, and how they dragged on as students had to craft makeshift bathrooms out of buckets and bottles. Jaden Glassman, a sophomore confined in his sixth-period classroom during the lockdown, said in an interview after the incident that he knew of a teacher who made a standup bathroom out of cardboard and bottles. 

“It honestly was just uncomfortable and confusing for everyone,” Lopez said. “Kids, I mean, they had to go and we were stuck in that classroom for several hours.” 

The 17-year-old suspect, also a Magruder student, allegedly bought a “ghost gun” online and assembled it with a friend before taking it to school, according to police and court records. The teen’s attorneys say he brought the gun to school because he feared being “jumped” and pulled the gun out in the bathroom as a fight brewed. He accidentally pulled the trigger, his attorneys say. 

Prosecutors argue that the suspect was intentional in his actions — he purchased the parts for the gun, assembled it and brought it to school with the intent of using it, they say. 

Steven Alston Jr., who turned 18 on Sunday, has been charged as an adult with attempted murder. A two-week jury trial is scheduled to begin in late February. 

The victim survived the shooting but was on life support for three weeks — which included his birthday in February — and underwent 10 surgeries through June. 

‘It kind of changed us as people’

The exposure to violence still resonates with many of the students and staff in the school that day, even as outsiders’ attention has turned away — toward other local issues or one of the mass shootings that has followed elsewhere. 

“For us at Magruder, it kind of changed us as people,” said Gediya, who graduated in June. “It was the first time I’ve felt that much fear. It was the first violent incident most of us have” experienced. 

Research studies following school shootings have found that people with higher levels of exposure generally experience the most severe psychological impact. But even those who were across campus at the time of school shootings have shown signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression, the research says. 

Exposure to school violence can affect students’ attendance rates, grades and ability to plan for the future, the research suggests. 

Jessica Hasson, a psychologist in Gaithersburg, said common reactions in teens following incidents like the shooting at Magruder include anxiety, anger, fear, even nightmares and flashbacks. 

For most, the symptoms will subside over time, she said, but there is a risk of “more common fear or anxiety.” Some may experience long-term symptoms, such as depression, anxiety, being hypervigilant, nightmares, flashbacks and dissociation. 

‘Signs they’re sending us that they’re not OK’

Monifa McKnight, then seven months into her tenure as interim MCPS superintendent, went to the school when it reopened to students for the first time four days later, according to a February interview with Bethesda Beat. 

A former principal and teacher, McKnight said she noticed students acting “differently” — many avoided eye contact and most were quiet. 

As she stood in the back of a classroom, she noticed nearly all of the students were bouncing their feet or legs, which she thought signaled nervousness. 

“As I watched their feet shaking, I kept thinking that there are so many signs they’re sending us that they’re not OK without them coming up to us and saying that,” McKnight said. “We all have to keep paying attention to that and realize that so many of them have been impacted by this.” 

The shooting happened on a Friday afternoon. By Sunday, social media posts from schools across the county had been shared hundreds of times encouraging students and staff members to wear navy and white on Tuesday  — Magruder’s colors — to show solidarity. More than 250 people donated to an online fundraiser for the teen victim, raising nearly $11,000. Statements condemning school violence and offering support poured in from across the state. 

But in some corners of social media, attention was already shifting from the shock of the first MCPS school shooting and its impact on students and staff to policy and politics. 

On a popular online forum, D.C. Urban Moms and Dads, hundreds of posts flooded a thread titled “Magruder HS shooting.” 

Some posts speculated the incident was gang-related (police have not reported any connection). Pointed debates about concepts such as restorative justice, police brutality and race swelled. Those discussions spilled over onto other platforms, including Twitter and Facebook, and soon after the shooting, forums about school safety and whether police officers should be in schools were organized. 

That fall, the police officers, known as school resource officers, were removed from school buildings for the first time in nearly two decades at the direction of County Executive Marc Elrich. Some social media commenters seized on that fact, drawing a line between the shooting and what they said were inadequate protections against violence. 

Three days after the shooting, at a press conference, McKnight, joined by county and police leaders, said the district was launching a “comprehensive review” of school safety measures, including MCPS’ relationship with police. 

About three months later, to the chagrin of advocates who months before had celebrated the removal of the officers, MCPS leaders announced a new plan that permanently allows officers to be in schools again, albeit in a limited capacity. While some community groups supporting police in schools celebrated the move, others, like Community Partners for Public Safety, said the plan doesn’t go far enough. 

Under the new model, officers are provided with a work space near the front office of a cluster’s high school or administrative area and can communicate directly with principals. The model prior to the start of the 2021-22 school year had the officers stationed in high schools full time. 

While the debates about police in schools took hold, Magruder students said in recent interviews they felt left behind as they continued to process the shooting. 

“It’s like everybody else went back to normal fairly quickly, but there’s no such thing as normal for us anymore — it doesn’t exist,” Gediya said. “We can’t really go back to normal after something like this, and now it’s just making sure something like this doesn’t happen again.”

Some students, including Lopez and Gediya, said the worst part of the shift in attention were social media posts that minimized the severity of the shooting: It was only one student, some posts said. He didn’t die. It wasn’t an active shooter. It’s not so bad. 

“I actually can’t even fathom that thinking,” McKnight said in February. “That student is someone’s child, like every single child in our schools is part of this community. So everyone should feel that personal about anything that happens to the children within our community, whether it’s one of them or 10 of them or 50 of them.

The victim 

The victim’s mother, Karen Thomas, said in recent court proceedings that her son, who marked his 16th birthday on life support, will struggle with his injuries for the rest of his life. 

Before the shooting, Thomas said her son was a “happy, upbeat, social, caring” teen. Now, he “has to heal and get back to normal instead of enjoying a normal teenage experience,” she told the court. 

During the confrontation that Friday afternoon in the bathroom, the suspect aimed the gun at the victim’s head, and when the victim went to push it away, the suspect fired one shot, hitting him in the pelvis area, according to police.

The injuries were nearly fatal, police officials have said. A school nurse using a “stop the bleed” kit likely saved his life. 

Among the teen’s injuries: liver and kidney failure. He also developed sepsis, blood clots and edema — extreme swelling caused by excess body fluid in the tissue, his mother said. 

“I watched his body swell up to become almost unrecognizable,” Thomas told the court during a hearing on the case. “He physically will never be the same again,” she added, noting that a bullet is still lodged in his body, behind his left hip. 

Preparing for students’ return

In his 14 years as Magruder’s principal, Leroy Evans had participated in countless trainings about how to respond to emergencies: fires, tornadoes, and even active shooters. But there was no training for how to handle a targeted attack like the one that occurred in the bathroom, he said in an interview this summer. 

“I was dealing with a situation with one of my students who I am obligated to protect who was in dire need of medical attention. And then I had the others that I didn’t know how vulnerable they were, or if they were vulnerable at all,” Evans said in June. 

Before that day was through, Evans was thinking about what his students and employees might need to cope and process the shooting. The next morning, he held a virtual meeting with families to share updates. Then he got to work making sure that counselors and other mental health resources were available over the weekend and when students returned for classes the next week. 

Lopez said that despite the challenges, the school’s initial response was thorough and helped students feel safe and better able to process what had happened. 

“It was kind of a surreal feeling being back in school that next week knowing what had happened, but I wasn’t necessarily scared because I knew more details about the situation and knowing it wasn’t as bad as it could have been because of how the school and police responded, was comforting,” Lopez said.

Long-term support and solutions 

In the days following the shooting, MCPS and the county health department provided therapy dogs, more counselors and psychologists, and time to sit together and talk, which was helpful for some, students said in recent interviews. But not for all, and it didn’t last. They’re not OK with that. 

At a meeting in March, a dozen Magruder students, including Gediya, pleaded with school board members to make more intentional investments in long-term mental health resources. 

“Does it require a student to get shot in order to get support from the adults in our lives?” one student asked during the meeting. 

The students who spoke said their pleas for mental health resources — after the shooting and in prior years — have been ignored. And some called what was offered in the days following the shooting “insignificant, unengaging and repetitive.”

MCPS leaders rebutted with what was available — therapy, additional psychologists, a club that aims to destigmatize mental illness. The move felt “dismissive,” students said in recent interviews. At the meeting, school board member Lynne Harris said she is frustrated that students have had to keep testifying at meetings about the same problems.

“They’re telling us what they need, and when they come back to say the same things … then this is a pervasive problem we have not yet addressed,” Harris said. “… They really shouldn’t be waiting to see the needs of themselves and their peers being met.”

MCPS did not respond to requests for information about what additional measures would be in place to support Magruder students when they return to school Aug. 29. 

Hasson, the Gaithersburg psychologist, said more community events, like art shows, pep rallies and musicals, can help students feel connected and “foster relationships that improve mental health.” 

More trusted adults should be around and available to talk, and some administrative burden should be taken off teachers so they can be available for their students, she said. 

“We need the students — all students — to know the community loves and supports them,” Hasson said. 

For the students most affected by the shooting, their hope is that some positive change can come from their experience and advocacy. 

“I just hope what we did so far doesn’t go away — that the district and the Board of Education realize this is probably the most important thing they have to deal with,” Gediya said. “Long-term, if we don’t address students’ needs, particularly their mental health needs, we’re only going to have another incident like this happen again. That’s what I worry about most now — that people will forget and someone else will have to go through the same thing we did.”