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Magruder student bought ‘ghost gun’ components online before wounding classmate, prosecutor says

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 1/24/2022 Dan Morse, Jasmine Hilton
Colonel Zadok Magruder High School in Derwood, Md. A student was shot inside during school hours on Jan. 21. (Photo by Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post) © Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post Colonel Zadok Magruder High School in Derwood, Md. A student was shot inside during school hours on Jan. 21. (Photo by Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

The Montgomery County teenager charged with critically wounding a classmate with an untraceable ghost gun told authorities he purchased the components online and a friend helped him assemble the weapon, a prosecutor said in court Monday.

“Three different parts were literally delivered to his home,” Montgomery County Police Chief Marcus Jones added at a news conference after the hearing.

The details of the Friday shooting that put Magruder High School in lockdown emerged as Steven Alston Jr., 17, was ordered held without bond pending trial.

The 15-year-old victim “is currently fighting for his life” at a hospital, said Carlotta Woodward, a prosecutor in the Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office.

Earlier coverage: Magruder put on lockdown after shooting

Authorities have said the incident never evolved into an active shooter situation, and it grew out of a dispute between two students. On Monday, Jones said the two had made a “predetermined” decision to settle the matter in a boys’ bathroom.

Alston came to school with his weapon — a 9mm handgun — already loaded, according to Woodward. About 1 p.m., with the gun stuffed in his waistband, he allegedly entered the bathroom.

“This defendant removed a handgun from his waistband and pointed it at the head of the victim,” Woodward said.

The victim pushed it away, and Alston then shot him in the pelvis area, Woodward said.

Other students who witnessed the shooting didn’t alert school officials or call 911, Jones said. Investigators believe they instead took to social media to tweet that someone had been shot and provided information about the suspect and victim, according to Jones.

Jones criticized the urge of “being the superstar on Twitter for the day” rather than calling for help.

“That’s a reality that we’ve got to have a real conversation with our young people about,” he said. “There is a place for social media. But then there’s a time and place for when we need to help our fellow man.”

‘Please help me’: Kids with guns fueled a record number of school shootings in 2021

The badly injured student was found during a routine check of the bathroom by a security guard at about 12:53 p.m., Jones said. The student apparently did not say who hurt him or even that he had been shot, Jones said.

The first call to 911, he said, was for an injured person in the bathroom. “Initially this was not a call for police,” Jones said.

A school nurse was soon treating the student, performing what school officials would later call life saving care. Medics arrived and began treating the victim.

The first police officer — a Montgomery County sheriff’s deputy — arrived at 1:12 p.m., Jones said. The first officers from the county’s main police force — the Montgomery County Police Department — arrived at 1:33 p.m.

Alston was discovered in a classroom with other students Friday and arrested by police officers around 3 p.m. They found the gun near him, but it had been disassembled, authorities said. He had earlier broken the weapon down into at least three parts. One part was found in his backpack, one on the floor near him and a third — a loaded magazine — was found in his sock, Jones said.

The ease with which the student allegedly obtained his gun parts highlighted an alarming problem of proliferating ‘ghost guns,’ called such because they typically are not traceable. Earlier this month, an adult outside a different Montgomery County high school was found with such a weapon assembled into an AR-15 styled pistol, authorities said Monday.

Jesus Luque-Santaclaya, 27, was charged with having a dangerous weapon on school property at Gaithersburg High School, as well as other gun charges, according to court records. He is accused of having the weapon inside his car, in the parking lot, before school started, according to arrest reports.

There was no indication in the records that he planned to use the weapon. Luque-Santaclaya told police he’d bought it from an unknown “friend” for self-protection, documents state. An attorney listed for him could not immediately be reached.

Alston, an 11th-grader, has been charged as an adult with attempted second-degree murder, felony assault and weapons offenses.

An attorney for Alston, Lucy Larkins, did not address the allegations directly during the hearing. But she asked Montgomery County District Court Judge Zuberi B. Williams to allow Alston to be released to home detention — citing his lack of criminal history — so he could take classes virtually.

“I know he is committed to continuing his studies,” Larkins said.

Williams denied the request but granted her request to move Alston to a juvenile facility.

When Montgomery County police first arrived, the school had been in lockdown for 28 minutes. Investigators learned the name of the alleged shooter, then learned he was not in the class he was supposed to be in. Police eventually learned he was in a different classroom with other students. It is not clear how he got into a classroom where he didn’t have a class. One possibility: When lockdowns go into place, teachers are guided to bring nearby students in the hallway into their classroom.

Montgomery County Public Schools interim superintendent Monifa B. McKnight called the shooting a “horrific tragedy” that has “weighted on our sense of security.”

McKnight said Magruder’s scheduled will be adjusted to a half day on Tuesday — the first day of the semester — to allow students access to the support of counselors and psychologists. There will also be an increased police presence at all high schools.

Police officers and some parents are questioning whether the incident could have been prevented if county officials had not disbanded a countywide program of School Resource Officers (SROs), which placed a uniformed, sworn police officer in each high school. The county’s police union, citing a string of such violent incidents in schools, has called the removal of SROs a failed social experiment, in part because SRO’s could learn about brewing student beefs and tamp them down. But backers of their removal have said the broader goals of the move — which included the adding social workers and other staff to support students — are as important as ever.

“We are all working to make sure that our schools are safe, supportive places for students and educators,” said County Councilmember Will Jawando (D-At Large), a proponent of removing the SROs, on Monday. “Police are not the most effective tool to reduce violence in schools nor are they the best trained adults to reduce harm and trauma for children in schools.”

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