Candles, flowers, teddy bears and notes were arranged in a circle around the flagpole at Central Park for Dominic Blackwell, 14, and Gracie Anne Muehlberger, 15, who were killed in a shooting at Saugus High School a year ago Saturday.
This memorial marked one of the first ways that students, staff and the Santa Clarita Valley community as a whole began to cope through the grief of that tragic day, which was followed by numerous community organizations coming together to help address the emotional impacts of the shooting.
For Mia Tretta, who survived the gunshot wound she received that day, that process has been slow but steady.
“As you can imagine, this year has been hard, but I am taking it one day at time,” Tretta said. “I’ve been healing through therapy, my dog Brandy, my amazing doctors at Holy Cross and UCLA, our Santa Clarita community and my supportive friends and family.”
Each and every person was affected differently by that day, and although the stages of grief are universal, the rate at which they progress through each stage and how they do so is completely unique, according to Dr. Nicholas Betty, director of the William S. Hart Union High School District’s Department of Therapeutic Counseling.
“Many students and staff have spent the last year processing the gravity of these traumatic events through our school-based counseling program,” Betty said. “One of the key factors Dr. (David) Schonfeld (director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement) spoke about in his address to the Saugus community last year was the rapid pace at which the Hart school district mobilized resources to begin the path towards recovery. This was not a matter of luck, but of design.”
Since then, the district has continued to support students, establishing the Saugus multipurpose room as a wellness center over the extended break, giving students a “safe space” when they returned to campus, with mental health professionals at the ready for anyone who needed to talk.
Trained comfort dogs were also deployed to the school as soon as news of the incident spread, and many spent the months following stationed in the wellness center, waiting to comfort whoever needed it.
“We were monitoring what the pulse was of the students and staff: Were we having a lot of visitors when we were on campus?” said Pam English, who has a certified therapy dog herself and helped coordinate the dogs’ visits to the schools.
“At first, every dog had a crowd of students around them, and then as that started to taper off, it was good to see things getting a little bit back to normal,” English said, adding that as time went on, students would stop by for a couple of pets, then return to their friends, which to English signified life returning to normal.
The dogs didn’t stop there either, traveling to almost all of the schools in the district, as well as a few in other districts, with teams of dogs coming in from neighboring cities to assist in the efforts.
“They’re the support sometimes we don’t even know that we need,” English said. “It’s a pleasure to watch the magic that the dogs bring — we’re just the human on the end of the leash that is watching the magic happen in front of us.”
Though unable to be there for students through the pandemic, the dogs recently made a video for them, reminding them they’re Saugus Strong.
“Our school has no absence of resources that they’re making available for us,” Saugus senior Aidan Soto said. “I think people are holding strong, and they’re definitely there for each other. … Our school has been doing a really good job of keeping the unity.”
After choir teacher Kaytie Holt helped save one of the victims of the shooting, she’s become more passionate about mental health and wellness, taking over as the wellness center’s coordinator and advising the school’s Bring Change to Mind club, which deals with mental health awareness.
“Mental health and wellness is very important to me, so I tried to take a more active role on campus in that … and I’ve just become more passionate about these things since the event, just wanting to do something, just wanting to make this as preventable as humanly possible, and also to provide a support for our students who are still dealing with grieving and processing,” Holt said.
Following the incident, the Child & Family Center immediately deployed care teams to listen and speak to the students, parents and community members who were impacted.
“The day of the shooting, we were also able to pull together some support groups for those who were impacted, whether it be directly or indirectly,” said Monica Dedhia, program manager of access, crisis and community engagement at the Child & Family Center. “We just wanted to be available in whatever manner that we could be.”
Likewise at College of the Canyons, it was all hands on deck from the jump.
“Everybody jumped in, everybody helped, and it was really gratifying to see that,” said Larry Schallert, assistant director of Student Health & Wellness/Mental Health at COC. “Our idea was to run as many (support) groups as we possibly could on as many campuses as we could because it wasn’t just Saugus that was affected, it was virtually everyone in Santa Clarita.”
The year following the shooting hasn’t been an easy one, with the COVID-19 pandemic hitting just months later, along with civil unrest following the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota, followed by election distress.
“Everything we’ve been doing in the last year is taking into account the multiple traumas that Santa Clarita has experienced,” Schallert added. “In some ways, our well-being is more fragile than ever. … So we try to consider all of that, and encourage people to use coping mechanisms and coping strategies and to do self care, (which) … is critical in order to help yourself but also to help anybody else.”
Since the shooting, Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital’s emergency department has also seen an influx of students who’ve been struggling emotionally, not just from Saugus, but across the SCV.
“I think the whole foundation of their sense of security has been upended,” said Elizabeth Tarantini, Henry Mayo’s clinical social work supervisor. “So, as a community hospital, we’re just trying to reinforce that by providing counseling when they do come to the emergency room, with the help of our psychiatric team and our social workers, who are doing an amazing job connecting them with outpatient therapy and getting students, and their parents really, the help that they need.”
In fact, Tarantini believes the shooting has helped to raise awareness of the importance of getting mental health help.
“Mental health for so long has been neglected, and I think it’s definitely shown how important seeking help is and that it’s actually a strength,” she added.
These services and supports have continued as needed, allowing the community to work through each stage of grief.
“The community sustained this trauma and suffered this loss, and that grief process is not necessarily something that’s linear… it’s something that comes in waves,” Dedhia added. “Particularly with this year, families may have incurred several losses, even if it’s just students that were about to graduate not being able to have that experience. … It’s OK to feel a sense of loss there and go through that grief process.”
As the anniversary approached, the Hart district scheduled a “Wellness Week,” featuring online activities and resources, such as yoga, gardening and positive messages from students.
“Our teachers were doing a really good job this week to make sure that we’re all comfortable,” Saugus sophomore Sami Stadtlander said. “It’s been really calming in a way just being able to know that I have all these resources out there for me in the past year.”
While L.A. County Sheriff’s Department officials say the shooting took 16 seconds from start to finish, for those affected, the mental recovery will take far longer.
“To be sure, there is still much work left to do, and we have committed to doing this work for the next many years,” Betty said. “By recognizing this tragedy as a community-wide event needing community-wide solutions, coupled with the targeted expertise of licensed mental health professionals on campus, we can continue prioritizing the well-being of all district students through a robust mental health program available at every one of our school and program locations.”
For more resources, visit the Saugus Strong website at hartdistrict.org/apps/pages/saugusstrong or Be The Difference SCV at bethedifferencescv.org.
To seek help, call the Suicide Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “Courage or Help” to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.