“We’ve got an active shooter at Saugus High School,” said the dispatcher. And with that declaration Santa Clarita would never again be the same. The sleepy little town is known for the first successful oil strike in California in an area known as Mentryville; where silent movie actor William S. Hart filmed many of his movies and lived during the latter part of his life; and as a film industry mecca.
We’re in the TMZ “thirty mile zone” outside of Los Angeles and boast more than twenty sound stages and several movie studios, including the new Disney facility. There are also over a hundred miles of trails and paseos for biking, hiking, skating, and horseback riding. This popular community that appeared to have it all would be forever changed by the sixteen second from start to finish act of a single teenager on November 14th, 2019 at 7:38 in the morning.
In the years since 2006 that I have called Santa Clarita home, the population has ballooned from just over two hundred thousand residents to more than three hundred thousand. The city is now on track to reach four hundred thousand within the next five years and has been on the list of the fastest growing cities in California for the past seven years. With this growth comes opportunities, hopes and dreams fulfilled, and a certain lifestyle that are the positive sides of the coin, along with issues around overpopulation, crime, and the feeling of anonymity that are the negative, flip side of the coin. I had relocated here after becoming disgruntled from living in the San Fernando Valley section of Los Angeles, just twenty-five miles to the south of Santa Clarita. When the population there approached one million inhabitants and the all too familiar sound of helicopters overhead hurt my ears I headed for greener pastures.
I knew exactly what I was getting into in 2006 when I built a new home in Plum Canyon, a new neighborhood in the Saugus community within the City of Santa Clarita. This city had incorporated in 1987 and the founding fathers (and mothers) had big dreams for its future. While vowing to maintain and even expand the protected open space surrounding the area, they countered this with an almost unheard of goal for new residences, industrial space, and commercial centers to be built as quickly as possible.
Saugus is one of the five communities that make up the City of Santa Clarita. Saugus High is less than two miles from me and almost every teenager I am acquainted with in this part of the city attends this school. Also, many of my adult friends and business associates are alumni.
The sirens began blaring just after seven-thirty on the morning of Thursday, November 14th, 2019. I was preparing for a call with a client and when the police and firemen continued to race by while she and I were speaking I assumed there had been a terrible accident not far from my house. Calls began coming in on my phone during this time as well, and I assumed they were “robocalls” that could be ignored. My assumptions were proved incorrect when I left the house just after nine to take a family member into Los Angeles for surgery scheduled later that day.
The calls had been coming from the department that provides help in case of emergencies. I am a community volunteer, which means I have been trained in CPR and emergency response and have listed myself as available to help during a crisis. I wanted to help that morning, but my obligation was to a family member who was expected at a hospital in Los Angeles two hours later for surgery and needed for me to stay with him throughout the day.
As we drove away from Santa Clarita more and more police passed us on the opposite side of the street. I turned on the radio and immediately heard what had happened. A student had been dropped off at school by his mother at seven that morning, sat quietly for a half hour, and then casually taken a 45 caliber, semi-automatic gun out of his backpack and opened fire on the students sitting outside in an area known as the “Quad.” The shooter saved one final bullet to shoot himself in the head. The entire episode, recorded by surveillance video at the school, took only sixteen seconds to unfold and within hours two of his victims had died, three others remained in serious condition, one had been treated and released from the hospital, and the shooter himself was listed as being in “grave” condition. He died the following day. This was an act of senseless violence that left me and so many others asking “Why?”
This news left me feeling angry and hurt. While this young man lay near death, others had died, over twenty-four hundred students from the high school had their lives turned upside down, and the entire community was grieving. Why hadn’t he been willing to fight for others’ lives with acts of love and courage instead of choosing to commit an act of violence that left him fighting for his own life until he died?
Four decades ago Santa Clarita was mostly unknown to people living closer in to Los Angeles; when Six Flags Theme Parks purchased the Magic Mountain theme and amusement park in 1979 they spent the next decade focusing on putting Santa Clarita “on the map.” In 1987 the City of Santa Clarita was incorporated with the goals of making this city one that would represent all of the positive aspects of living in an affluent suburb of Los Angeles County; now this school shooting adds Santa Clarita to the growing list of schools in the United States that have gone through this same type of senseless tragedy.
I’m not sure why I was surprised to see that the Wikipedia entry for “List of School Shootings in the United States” had been updated to include this shooting at Saugus High within hours of its occurrence. I don’t want to be part of this statistic. I don’t want anyone else to ever have this experience. I don’t want anyone to lose their life at school when a student or anyone else invades their campus and opens fire. The question now stretching the limits of my mind is “What do I want, for myself and for others and how can I become a part of the solution?”
I am choosing not to share my thoughts and personal beliefs around the two topics that always come up when there is a mass shooting – gun control and mental illness. I think those issues do need to be addressed, but not immediately after this incident when everyone’s feelings are still so raw and even those who were not directly affected are still grieving. It detracts from what is in front of us right now and is disrespectful to the survivors. Shifting the focus from the people directly affected is not the right thing to do, in my opinion.
Over the days following this incident I found myself wrapped in a sadness that would not lift. I knew that the only way for me to come out of this fog of grief was to be of service to those who had been directly affected by what had happened. My first Rotary Club, before I transferred to the Santa Barbara Rotary in 2013 when I began living there half of my time, was the Santa Clarita Rotary Club. I still attend their meetings and participate in their service projects as often as possible each year.
In the fall of 2016 Santa Clarita Rotary had completed and dedicated a Rotary Peace Garden at Saugus High School. I’m still on their email list and within two days the members had decided to add two benches to this Peach Garden, one for each of the young people who lost their lives and to rededicate the location to their memory and to the entire student body, teachers, and other staff at the school. I will participate by helping to raise funds for this project.
I was also in touch with Sandy and Lonnie Phillips, citizens turned activists when their daughter was killed in a mass shooting in the movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado in 2012. After that they vowed to visit the site of every mass shooting in the United States, and they are now on the road almost non-stop, unfortunately. Because I live less than two miles from the high school I offered my home to them when they visit Santa Clarita.
Another part of this tragedy is observing the leaders that rise up from among the student body. One of these is Hannah Schooping-Gutierrez, a courageous teen who was willing to go on national television to share her thoughts throughout that morning. She described her fear as ran away from the campus, imagining the shooter behind her and shooting her in the back.
Another was Andrei Mojica, the Saugus High School Student Body President. He was already in class when he and the other thirty students saw other students running past their classroom. They didn’t think anything was wrong until someone opened the door and said there was a shooter on campus. In a split second everyone was up and barricading the doors with desks and tables. They’d practiced this before, and their most recent “active shooter drill” was only two weeks earlier, but Andrei said there was just something different about it from a simple drill to real life. The students sat in silence and had a fire extinguisher they were prepared to use as a weapon if anyone came into the classroom. They didn’t hear any gunshots. It would be forty-five minutes until the police arrived to tell them it was safe to come outside.
My friend’s daughter was alone when the shooting began, and ducked into an empty classroom where she would hide in the closet for over an hour before being found by the police. She did not have her cell phone with her and her family and friends were frantic during this time.
Saugus High School choir teacher Kaitlin Holt, twenty-six years old and barely a decade older than her students, were in the choir room when several students burst into the classroom, saying they heard gunshots. She immediately locked the door and barricaded it with a piano. Holt then ushered the more than three dozen students into a nearby office. It was there where a student realized she had been shot twice, once in the abdomen and once in the shoulder.
Months earlier Holt had watched a tutorial on how to use a gunshot wound kit, retrieved the kit and wrapped the girl’s wound on her right side while putting pressure on the shoulder wound. One student alerted police about the wounded girl, while another guarded the door with a fire extinguisher.
“My teacher bravely went outside to the classroom, senior Eddie Mendoza said. “She went straight to work. She’s a hero, honestly.”
As the teacher treated the victim’s wounds, the teenage girl kept saying: “I just want my mom here. I just want my mom.”
Holt reassured her that should would be OK and that she was going to make it. Several people called 911 multiple times, begging them to come quickly. After about 20 minutes, the police arrived and told the students they could leave the room. This injured student was released from the hospital four days later and has many months of physical therapy ahead of her. She best friend was killed and her world flipped upside down as a result of those sixteen seconds of violence.
The more than two thousand students, the families, the teachers and other school staff, and the community need to feel the love I and so many others have for them, even though we do not know most of them personally. I do not take anything for granted and know that kind words and action will help with the healing process. From personal experience I know that losing a friend or a loved one stays with you forever, and when someone is lost to senseless violence it makes you question many aspects of life that you had previously taken for granted. Even though I now only live part-time in this community, Saugus will forever be in my heart and I will do everything within my power to help them stay #SaugusStrong.
I’m Connie Ragen Green, and my goal and intention is to help others to achieve their full potential in life and business. Connect with me and let’s work together to achieve your goals.
Editor’s Note: During the four days after this horrific event occurred there have been two more mass shootings. The first was on Sunday, November 17th, 2019 is Fresno, California where four adults were killed and six more injured at a football party. There were more than twenty-five adults and children at the party when two shooters entered through the back yard.
On the morning of Monday, November 18th, 2019 three adults were gunned down in the parking lot of a Walmart in Duncan, Oklahoma. A bystander confronted the shooter by holding a gun to his head, resulting in the shooter taking his own life.