Muehlberger, Blackwell families file wrongful death suits against Hart District

Balloons and flowers stand in front of Saugus High School which was still closed for investigation on Friday, November 15, 2019. Dan Watson/The Signal

The families of the two students, Gracie Muehlberger and Dominic Blackwell, who died during the Saugus High School shooting filed wrongful death lawsuits Monday against the William S. Hart Union High School District.

On Nov. 14, 2019, Saugus High School student Nathan Berhow, 16, opened fire on classmates while on the campus’ quad area, fatally shooting Muehlberger, 15, and Blackwell, 14, and injuring three others before turning a .45-caliber handgun on himself. 

Each of the two families filed separate, but similar lawsuits with different lawyers alleging the school district failed “to perform its mandatory duties related to supervision of students and/or for the negligent acts and/or omissions of its officers, officials, agents, and/or employees in failing to supervise” Berhow and the quad area, read the lawsuits. 

The Hart district does not comment on pending litigation but officials issued the following statement Friday:

“The William S. Hart Union High School District and Santa Clarita Valley continue to grieve with the Muehlberger and Blackwell families one year after the tragic incident on Nov. 14, 2019. We were honored to coordinate with the Muehlberger and Blackwell families and the city of Santa Clarita in the recent Unity of Community remembrance event to honor Gracie and Dominic.”

The goal behind the lawsuits is to hold the district accountable and raise awareness, according to the Muehlberger family and their attorney Julie Fieber. 

“The key point for us is that we want to see change,” said Bryan Muehlberger, the father of Gracie. “We hope to adopt or foster but right now we don’t feel comfortable with the public school system and until we see that they’re more proactive we won’t be sending them back.”

“Many schools have safety protocols and a number of plans in place but they’re no good if they’re just sitting on the shelves,” Fieber said Friday. “The thing that’s shocking is that there were tools in place that might have made a difference but, as far as we know, they weren’t being followed.” 

No school official, including a resource officer, security guard or teacher approached or supervised Berhow while he stood in the quad “in excess of 40 minutes during the class period” even though the student “was supposed to be in class,” read the lawsuits. 

“There’s no evidence that they (a school resource officer and/or security guard) were present and checking on the shooter,” said Fieber. “My understanding is that (a school resource officer) wasn’t present, and we will be reviewing every piece of evidence on that.” 

The lawsuits allege that many of the safeguards that should have been in place were not. 

“For example, upon information and belief, the William S. Hart Union (High School District) had a Text-a-Tip line assigned to the Saugus High School that was not operable at the time of the event or for an extended period of time prior,” read one of the lawsuits. “Security cameras for monitoring the campus were obscured by overgrown trees and not actively monitored.” 

School district officials have previously stated that safety protocols have been in place prior to the shooting ranging from campus security to lockdown measures and mental health resources. 

DA declines to file charges

The lawsuits follow the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office’s released report on the declined charges in the shooting. The report indicates that county Sheriff’s Department deputies served a warrant at the home of the shooter and the shooter’s mother, Mami Matsuura-Berhow, 56, of Saugus, the day of the shooting. The charges were submitted by the Sheriff’s Department against the mother of the 16-year-old but were declined as DA officials did not believe they could be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. 

Multiple firearms were found and removed as a result of the search, a detail the lawsuits noted. 

“Inside the suspect’s son’s bedroom door was an unloaded single-shot Colt derringer,” according to the assistant district attorney’s notes on the evidence seized, which also included an “unloaded semiautomatic rifle, which also appeared to have been built from an 80% kit.” The report notes the rifle was found in an “unlocked makeshift gun safe.”

The families are seeking compensation for past and future medical costs, attorney fees and other post-judgment interests on all damages. Both cases are seeking jury trials, according to Fieber.

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