Jaelynn Willey was a 10th grader at Great Mills High School in Maryland in 2018. She was on the swim team and she had a boyfriend. It was the dream life for a high school student. But teen romance turned horribly wrong. She broke up with then 17-year-old Austin Rollins.
The boy, to put it mildly, didn’t take it well. Jaelynn was repeatedly harassed and threatened. Then on March 20, 2018, Rollins brought a gun to school. He shot and killed Jaelynn. He wounded another student in the process. Then he turned the gun on himself and took his own life.
Two years later, Jaelynn’s parents, Daniel and Melissa, are bringing a wrongful death lawsuit against the school board in St. Mary’s County.
The Willeys allege that the school received numerous warnings that Jaelynn was in danger from her ex-boyfriend. The lawsuit states that their daughter was harassed—physically and verbally— outside classrooms on a regular basis. The Willeys further allege that they took their concerns to Jaelynn’s swimming coach.
The Willeys’ wrongful death lawsuit also charges that the school’s basic safety measures for its students do not measure up. They cite an example of February 20, 2018—exactly one month prior to their daughter’s death—where the school received a warning about the possibility of a shooter. Security was added for that single day and then dropped.
Furthermore, according to the Willeys’ charge, the school has access to surveillance cameras and metal detectors that were not used and may have been able to stop Rollins.
Great Mills High School has responded with a statement saying, “The contention that school staff could have somehow prevented this tragedy is incorrect.” Dr. J. Scott Smith, speaking for the school system, said there had been coordination between the sheriff’s office and the Maryland Center for School Safety, and that predicting Rollins’ actions was an unrealistic expectation.
How the lawsuit comes out is going to depend on how a jury defines the question of negligence. The legal definition is the failure to exercise “the level of care that someone of ordinary prudence would have exercised under the same circumstances.”
The Willeys’ case rests on the conviction that ordinary prudence would have mandated some type of action be preemptively taken against Rollins. A juror that comes down on their side would presumably be persuaded that Rollins’ threats outside the classrooms had to have been noticed (or at least should have been) and taken seriously. At the very least, the parents’ concerns to the swim coach should have sufficed to make the school alert to the danger.
Even if the school system is able to defend themselves successfully on that front, they still face the charge of negligence regarding the broader issue of school safety. Were they negligent in not using the surveillance cameras, metal detectors and maintaining additional security after the threat made the previous month?
A jury will decide. That decision may have long-term effects on school security policies across the nation.