‘We will never feel normal again’

Two students of Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, California, were killed Nov. 14. A vigil was held Nov. 17, where attendees lit candles and left flowers at the memorial sites for victims Gracie Anne Muehlberger, 15, and Dominic Blackwell, 14. Over 5,000 people attended the service. Courtesy of Abbie DeMuth

The Panther traveled to Santa Clarita to attend the Nov. 17 vigil, honoring the victims of the Saugus High School shooting

Blue ribbons were tied around tree branches, lamp posts and fences outlining the perimeter of Saugus High School. Flowers, candles and words of encouragement written in chalk graced the sidewalks of Central Park as thousands of Santa Clarita Valley residents gathered for a candlelight vigil to remember the lives of two Saugus High School students, Dominic Blackwell and Gracie Anne Muehlberger.

I was 12 when I began to understand the realities of school shootings. It was the day after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting – a 2012 shooting that resulted in the death of 20 children, between the ages of six and seven, and six adult staff members. My sixth grade teacher spent the entire afternoon attempting to explain in tangible terms why such a tragedy would ever occur. Instead of learning basic algebra, my classmates and I practiced how fast we could hide in storage cupboards and behind desks. Rumors even began to circulate that my elementary school, located in Santa Clarita, was going to replace our classroom windows with bulletproof glass – using money that should have been spent on new classroom supplies.

On Nov. 14, students at Saugus High School grasped scissors and barricaded doors with school desks as they hid while an active shooter targeted their school. I call Santa Clarita home, and was shocked when I received a text message from my coworker who attends Saugus High School.

“There was a gunman on campus and at least four people were shot. I’m scared, everyone is sacred, everyone is crying. We don’t know what’s happening,” the text message read.

My sister – who is a junior at Hart High School, about five miles from Saugus – was placed on lockdown, as were all the schools in the area. One of my best friends heard the gunshots and witnessed a large group of students running towards his house looking for safety. I felt completely and utterly helpless. The bubble that protected “Awesometown” had officially been popped.

Andrei Mojica, the senior Saugus High Associated Student Body (ASB) president, was inside his advanced placement government class when informed of the shooting. Instantly, students began barricading the door with desks and tables.

“You’ve seen Columbine, Sandy Hook and Parkland on t.v. and you just think what another tragedy,” Mojica told me. “There’s so many questions that you never get to ask about these experiences until they actually happened. How do we recover on our first day of school? When will we be able to cope with what we have seen?”

Mojica had participated in March for Our Lives, a 2018 student-led demonstration that supported legislation to prevent gun violence in the United States. He was a main representative of Saugus and was responsible for gathering student signatures on a large banner.

“We will never feel normal again, but we can feel better again,” Mojica said. “It’s important for the school district to understand that this isn’t a partisan issue or an economic issue. It doesn’t really matter how much the school district gets or loses for this, but we need professional help resources on campus.”

Ashley Calkins, a 2019 Saugus alumna, was made aware of the incident after waking up to a text message from her mother.

“My first reaction was numb, but then I broke down,” Calkins said. “My thoughts were that it couldn’t be real and that it had to be a nightmare. Unfortunately it wasn’t.”

Calkins was part of the Saugus High ASB and was the president of Safe School Ambassadors, a program that harnesses the power of students to prevent and stop bullying and mistreatment founded after the Columbine High School massacre in 1999.

After multiple meetings with the Saugus Administration, Calkins was told under no circumstances would she be allowed to advocate for a school #ENOUGH walkout. Due to the effort made to confine students within campus, only 10 students walked off because everyone else was afraid to, Calkins said.

“I walked back on campus and yelled into the large crowd in the quad to let them know that we needed to walk off campus,” Calkins said. “After that about 50 students walked off campus following me. The administration wasn’t too happy, but that didn’t matter to me. The community of Saugus really came together.”