After deadly shooting, Saugus High School reopens to a new normal
Blue ribbons were everywhere. Tied onto fence poles and mailboxes leading to Saugus High School, entwined in tree branches, tied to wooden stakes in front yards and emblazoned with “Saugus Strong,” wrapped around a fire hydrant in front of the church where some students fled on Nov. 14 after they heard gunshots on campus.
Among the ribbons, white and blue “Saugus Strong” posters were affixed to fences leading to the school’s gates, professing words of hope for this community: “peace” and “love,” with “faith” written in a heart, above two clasped hands.
These symbols and messages welcomed students, staff and parents back to campus Monday, when classes resumed for the first time since a student walked into the school quad on his 16th birthday armed with a .45-caliber handgun and opened fire, killing Gracie Muehlberger, 15, and Dominic Blackwell, 14, and wounding three others before turning the gun on himself.
“Our objective today is for students to return to a normal routine,” Mike Kuhlman, deputy superintendent of the William S. Hart Union High School District, said at a news conference before school.
For students returning to the Santa Clarita campus, normal may be on the way, but not so much on Monday.
School operated on a minimum-day schedule with shortened classes. A beefed-up law enforcement presence patrolled on and off campus. A team of mental health counselors was on hand and therapy dogs roved the grounds. Counselors were stationed in the school’s performing arts center to help parents who “need to be around a little bit on campus,” Kuhlman said.
The day adhered to a sort of healing script — students scooped up donated blankets and teddy bears in their classrooms and snacked on hot chocolate and doughnuts in the quad. School officials set up a makeshift wellness center with couches and coloring books in the multipurpose room. During classes, students and teachers talked about their feelings, decorated stress balls and flower pots, played Uno or just listened to music on their phones, students said.
The ribbons, posters and donations reminded students “how much the people in the community love us and care about us,” senior Lukas Hoglo said as he walked home after school, holding a donated teddy bear he’d gotten in English class. “It’s beautiful.”
Lukas, 17, said that in the last few weeks he has relied on his family, friends and church community to cope with the trauma of the shooting. In the days after, it was hard to focus on anything else. The weeks off were a useful break, he said, but now he’s ready to return to routine, to seeing friends and opening textbooks and running with his cross-country teammates, the exercise a source of stress relief.
On Sunday night his pastor called to pray with the teen ahead of the return to campus and to offer Bible passages Lukas could read if he began to feel a panic attack coming.“I think it’s going to take time and some of it’s really not going to go away,” Lukas said.
The quad drew particular attention.
The dozen or so therapy dogs stationed in the area will return later in the week, said volunteer Debbie Abramson, who brought Roxy, an 8-year-old golden retriever with a “Saugus Strong” bandana around her neck.
“They wanted a lot of dogs stationed all around the quad area just to destigmatize that area,” Abramson said as she left campus at 10:45 a.m.
Sophomore Jordyn Tibayan-Kent said she was surprised to see so many students in the quad throughout the day, though she assumed the treats were all there to help normalize the area and bring students back. She grabbed a hot chocolate and a doughnut and petted the dogs before leaving for class.
“It’s disturbing to walk through it,” Jordyn, 15, said of the quad. “I wouldn’t sit in the area.”
In her first and second periods, teachers addressed what happened, she said. They told each class that two students had died and another had died by suicide, and that they wanted the students to hear the facts from reliable adult sources. They told students that grades would be frozen for the rest of the semester — grades could only go up, not down. Some teachers canceled finals.
Those were the only times anyone actually described the incident, Jordyn said. Students tend to refer to the shooting as “it,” as in “when it happened.” It feels jarring, weird, unnecessary, to say “the shooting,” she said. Everyone knows what they’re talking about.
Jordyn’s math teacher talked about the stages of grief and told the students that “there’s no wrong way to feel,” she said. That resonated because Jordyn has had conflicting feelings. She had been scared in the moment, locked down in a classroom far from the quad. She was angry afterward, but also feels empathy for the alleged shooter and his family. For now she mostly feels numb.
All the attention is “heartwarming,” she said. But “we have to go back to normal at some point. ... I just wonder when this will wear off.” The idea of going to school and not acknowledging the losses feels most overwhelming, she said.
“As we are continuing on these next upcoming weeks, it’s going to be really difficult — really difficult — for us,” Andrei Mojica, 17, president of Saugus High’s Associated Student Body, said before school. “But I know that through this sense of community, once more we will be OK.”
Andrei urged his classmates to take advantage of the mental health resources that officials were making available to students.
“A lot of us are dealing with problems and issues inside of us that we never thought we’d deal with in our entire lives,” he said. “But regardless, I know that we’ll get through it as long as we take the time to take care of ourselves and take care of each other.”
Cam’rynn Arrington, 14, doesn’t want to feel sad. She thinks and talks in terms of what is going well, even though so much has gone wrong. A therapy session offered at a church helped her to understand that people grieve differently, and it’s OK that she wants to celebrate her friends.
“I like to be happy ... and just be happy that I’m OK,” said Cam’rynn, a ninth-grade student. She was glad to return to campus so she and others can learn to “adapt to what happened and how to move on from it.”
There were difficult moments, especially the biology class she had shared with Dominic. When the students walked in, chairs were still on the desks and the teacher told them to sit in the back at the lab tables.
Cam’rynn was glad they didn’t have to sit in the regular seats, where Dominic’s absence would have felt so much more palpable. The students talked about what happened and decorated yellow stress balls. Cam’rynn covered hers in black Sharpie.
Dominic “was one of my best friends,” she said, fidgeting with the blue rubber “Saugus Strong” band around her wrist.
“He’s known for his SpongeBob backpack and his love for Nickelodeon shows,” she said, smiling. Then she corrected herself and the smile wavered as she talked about Dominic and Gracie in past tense.
“It’s hard to have to say ‘was.’ ”
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