A year after Saugus shooting, students look back as they move forward

Senior Jacob Conard is the primary editor on a virtual remembrance of the Saugus High School shooting.
Senior Jacob Conard is the primary editor on a virtual remembrance that will be released for the community on the anniversary of the Saugus High School shooting.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Lexi Renolds remembers everything about that morning one year ago at Saugus High School — barricading the classroom door, crowding into the small closet with classmates, hiding in the dark.

Cell service in the cramped space filled with props used by her TV production class was bad, and she had only a vague idea of what was happening outside. It would be hours before she would learn the full story: A 16-year-old student had opened fire on the quad of the Santa Clarita school, killing two teenagers and wounding three others before turning the gun on himself.

Despite the horrors of that day, Lexi said she feels safe in that room.


Lexi Renolds, 16, works on a remembrance project at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

The good memories outweigh the bad. The classroom is where she gets to do the work she loves, with the people she loves.

“This room is basically like my second home,” said Lexi, a junior at Saugus High.

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced classes to be moved online in the spring, the 16-year-old temporarily lost that home. But in August, she and other video production students began visiting campus periodically to work on a virtual remembrance for the students who were killed: Gracie Anne Muehlberger, 15, and Dominic Blackwell, 14. The 90-minute video premieres Nov. 14, the one-year anniversary of the shooting. A link to the viewing will be published on the school’s website at 6 p.m. Saturday.

When Adam Bratt studied the faces of his Advanced Placement psychology students that morning in December, he saw trauma.

Simple things, like seeing an old friend, working the control room or setting up a camera, take Lexi back to the world she knew before “everything happened,” including the shooting and the coronavirus outbreak. And though the material of the current project is heavy, the routine is welcome.

“It really makes you feel good when you come in and you leave just knowing that you have something normal,” she said.

For Wade Williams, Saugus’ video teacher, throwing himself into the project has also been a way to sublimate difficult feelings. Gracie was in his sixth-period video production class last year, a “very happy kid” who lit up when she was filming.

Teacher Wade Williams speaks with students at Saugus High School on Thursday in Santa Clarita.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

While searching for footage for the remembrance project, Williams was flooded with emotions when he found a school project Gracie wasn’t able to finish — a video rendition of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky.”

“There was promise right there. And it’s gone. So that’s hard. It’s been hard for me to watch it. It’s been hard for me to watch it over and over and over again. It’s kind of like picking a scab and not letting it heal,” Williams said. “But I think it’s also cathartic, and it will prove to be helpful. We can’t just put our heads in the sand and say it never happened.”

Rick Hand, a senior and one of the project leads, agreed that working on the video has helped him process his own feelings about the shooting.

Hand, 18, was with Gracie’s older brother when he learned the boy’s sister had been killed.

Senior Rick Hand, 18, is one of the remembrance project leads.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

“Working on a project like this — where I can feel like we’re helping somebody, somehow, feel better about this — that alleviates the guilt a little bit,” Hand said.

It’s also given the students’ insight into the lives of the victims and the survivors, whom they interviewed for the project.

Investigators searching the suspected gunman’s papers and computer hard drives said there was no immediate indication of motive.

Marie Marcos, a sophomore who worked on the video collection, said Dominic once approached her in junior high out of the blue to ask if anything was wrong. She was having a bad day, and it showed. She was struck by his candid, caring nature, which she recalled after his death.

Though Hand never interacted with Dominic, he said that based on listening to the boy’s friends and family as part of the project, “that fits 100% in line with anything I’ve ever heard.”

Santa Clarita Councilwoman Marsha McLean said the Santa Clarita community was tight knit before the shooting, but the tragedy forged even stronger bonds.

Days after the violence, more than 10,000 people gathered at Central Park to unite in mourning. “Saugus strong” began trending on Twitter. Tickers bearing the statement of solidarity appeared on cars all over town.

Saugus High School freshman Haley Stuart hugs her family at a memorial at Saugus High School on Nov. 15, 2019.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

“If there’s one thing we can remember, it’s the way everyone came together afterward,” Hand said, even though he felt like some of the sentiments were performative.

The pre-pandemic plan had been to hold another in-person gathering to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the shooting. That is still not off the table, with cautious hopes of an event in May, Williams said.

For now, the city is working with the Muehlberger and Blackwell families to create a memorial intended for installation in the spring, said McLean, whose granddaughter is a Saugus High student.

In the wake of the shooting, officials at the William S. Hart Union School District, which includes Saugus, didn’t focus on beefing up security. Instead, the district doubled down on a mental health initiative created last year, spokesman Dave Caldwell said. The district, which serves more than 20,000 students, has almost reached its goal of opening a wellness center at each campus, he said. And this week, prior to the anniversary, there was a full slate of online programming around mental and emotional health.

Assistant editor Ubaed Muhammad, 17, helped produce a virtual remembrance for the Saugus High School shooting anniversary.
Assistant editor Ubaed Muhammad, 17, helped produce a virtual remembrance that will be released to the community on the one-year anniversary of the Saugus High School shooting.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Ciara Wilkins, McLean’s granddaughter, said she visited the wellness center with friends a couple of times before school closed earlier in the spring during the COVID-19 pandemic, “when we couldn’t handle a day.” Games and coloring materials helped ease her anxiety.

“It was definitely a hard road, a lot of ups and downs, dealing with it,” the 16-year-old said of the aftermath of the shooting. “Coming up on the one year is definitely challenging because you have to face everything that happened, when you kind of want to push it out of your mind,” she said, adding that it’s hard to walk around campus when she needs to pick up or drop something off.

Like many of her peers, Ciara is focused on just getting through the rest of this unprecedented year. She plans to head out of state for college in the fall — if campuses have reopened by then. Marie, who still has two years before graduation, says while the future is muddled by uncertainty, last year’s tragedy has underscored the importance of savoring the here and now.

Last week, Marie and Lexi found themselves in the same closet they had barricaded themselves in one year ago. They were laughing and having fun with several other students as they tried to find the cords for a wireless microphone. Marie reflected on the moment: “What happened on the 14th — what happened in there — just blew over our heads.

“We only have four years of high school compared to the rest of our lives. So we really have to cherish everything,” she said. “And I just feel bad that Gracie and Dominic don’t have the privilege that we do, that we can make more memories. We really need to take advantage of that and really need to be aware of the fact that we only live one life, so we need to live it to its fullest.”