By Michael Picarella
For The Signal
High school is tough enough. It’s a time when kids become young adults, face the highest forms of peer pressure, and wrestle with who and what they’re going to become.
But the Saugus High School class of 2023 met additional challenges. A school shooting during freshman year that claimed the lives of three students and injured three others, and a global pandemic with the spreading of the deadly coronavirus that, among other effects, forced classes to take place online from home, would ultimately test students in unprecedented ways, and move them to take stock in what’s truly important to them.
Two Saugus High seniors spoke with The Signal before they’ll walk across stage to collect their diplomas on Wednesday at College of the Canyons. Kaysen Markoff and Makenna Ivey shared thoughts about their time in high school, and how students, teachers and administration, the William S. Hart Union High School District and the Santa Clarita Valley community came together to support each other and to ultimately unite as one.
“Since my junior year, I was very ready to leave,” Markoff said in an interview over the phone. “I wanted to start a new story because after a while, every house I passed by, it always said ‘Saugus Strong.’ Sometimes I feel like there should be at least some sort of a boundary. When I see ‘Saugus Strong’ around every corner I turn, it’s kind of a downer. It doesn’t let you leave the situation.”
Markoff and his fellow seniors are the last class in the school to have been on campus during the morning of Nov. 14, 2019, when a 16-year-old Saugus student opened fire and shot five fellow students — fatally wounding Gracie Muehlberger and Dominic Blackwell — and then took his own life. And while Markoff expressed last year’s eagerness to leave the site of the shooting for good, he said that this year he’s felt a bit different.
“I started to get some kind of anxiety,” he said. “Because once I leave the campus, I feel like I no longer have that community. And that community is really what built my character. Leaving the campus not only lets me know that I’m on my own, but that I’m moving on to different things, and there will be people left behind that were just such a great breath of fresh air … I’m leaving the resource officers, the staff members who were there to talk and communicate with me, the teachers, and it’s more of the fact that you’re leaving your family.”
One of Markoff’s fellow graduating seniors, Ivey, like him, said she also felt an initial urge to move on from the school. While Ivey admits that stepping onto that campus each day for class has been difficult over the years since the shooting, with those memories always looming, the school did become “Saugus Strong,” and she’ll miss the comfort of that bond.
“We all share this feeling,” she told The Signal over the phone about herself, her fellow classmates and others who survived the incident. “We’ve all been able to lean on each other and support one another during these times. When we go into the real world, not everybody’s going to know what we’ve been through. Some people might not even care.”
Ivey spoke about that day during her freshman year of high school when she heard gunshots coming from the quad.
“I was right in front of the girls’ locker room,” she said. “So, I wasn’t in the quad necessarily, but I was right next to the quad.”
She described what happened next:
“We heard the first shot go off, and then there was silence because it (the gun) got jammed. And then there was a couple more shots. We didn’t know what was happening, but we knew that somebody had a gun and somebody was shooting.”
Ivey and those around her, she said, instinctively ran. No adult at the time had told them what to do or where to go until they came across what she called “construction workers” at work on a nearby hill.
“They were the ones that kind of directed us to where to go from there. We had just started running, and then we got to a point where we’re like, ‘Where do we go?’ These construction people led us down into the neighborhood and helped us get out of that situation.”
Over the years since that day, Ivey said she’s built a special connection and support system with peers and school staff that have helped her and others deal with what they experienced.
“It’s not necessarily like we all sat around and talked about it. It’s more of just something that happened. Like, we all just have this kind of mutual respect for one another and this bond. It formed over time with the vigil, even stuff online. I think COVID happening further bonded us together.”
Markoff said that within such a short amount of time — at least by the January following the shooting — the people of the SCV had been “forming a unity of community.”
“Everyone was open to resources for mental health, in school and outside of school,” he said. “I really think that a big portion of what happened from then to now is that our school has been able to form a community where if you have an issue or something happens, you don’t have to look around as if these are just other students that you don’t know. You can actually look at them as family members.”
And while that support system has been instrumental during the healing process, campus life these past few years for Markoff and others has been difficult, particularly when walking through the quad where the shooting took place.
“I’m not much of a fan of big groups because I don’t know who’s doing what all at once,” Markoff said. “It’s work to go through that mentally. So, you have to not only get to class on time and all that, but you also have to fight with your mental health about remembering what happened there. And the quad is a central spot of this campus, so it was really hard to avoid.”
Ivey talked about her own sensitivities.
“This may sound so stupid, but seeing a lot of news people or news vans or helicopters is really triggering for me,” she said. “Or seeing people running. They don’t even have to be screaming.”
She added that she’s also grown accustomed to checking for exits wherever she goes, with a need to know how to get out of a place if the situation calls for it.
“You know, places like restaurants, malls and movie theaters. I know a lot of us deal with that, too.”
If there could be a silver lining, Markoff and Ivey agreed that it’s seeing how the community responded to the tragedy, and how so many people came together to help one another deal with the impacts of what happened, and even be there for others to perhaps avoid something like this from happening again.
“I don’t want to speak for my peers, but I think a lot of us feel this way — we’ve all learned how to be resilient, and we’ve all learned to deal with adversity through these past four years,” Ivey said. “I think for me, especially, it’s taught me that I don’t know what’s going on behind closed doors, and I don’t know what’s happening in people’s lives.”
Markoff spoke about several helpful resources that the school and the district began to provide after the shooting, including something the school calls the “serenity space,” which has been open and available to students in all grades to come and sit in peace at any time during the school day. Markoff said that while the space was created for those struggling with the aftereffects of what they experienced that day, it could be useful to other schools and other students who might be going through any kind of anxiety.
“I feel that if we had these resources to begin with, maybe this (the shooting) wouldn’t have happened, because he (the shooter) was going through something, and he needed help,” Markoff said. “I don’t think anybody was talking to him. Nobody was asking him what’s going on. And he snapped.”
Ultimately, it’s the we’re-all-in-this-together mentality, he said, that’s been a big takeaway for him. He even suggested that it proves why the Saugus High School mascot — the Centurion — is so fitting.
“Our mascot represents a leader of 100 community members. From the origins of our school, we were meant to be united. After this incident that happened, we now have the unity of community. I think it’s fair to not really think so much about rivalry anymore, but to think of the community and to bring Saugus and Valencia and Hart and all the schools together.”
Upon graduation, Markoff plans to eventually attend Chapman University in the city of Orange to study film, and then start his own film and entertainment company and hopefully return to the SCV. Ivey said she’d be attending College of the Canyons next year, eager to see where life takes her from there.
High school for the Saugus graduating class of 2023 has no doubt been tough with a shooting, a global pandemic and everything else a teenager faces during those four critical years. Both Markoff and Ivey said the tools they and others picked up along the way have been invaluable, in a time when they transitioned from kids to young adults.