School district’s attorneys say Saugus High shooting wasn’t foreseeable
Attorneys for the William S. Hart Union High School District state in new court papers that all or part of lawsuits filed by the parents of two teenagers who were shot and killed by a fellow student at Saugus High School in 2019 should be dismissed because the gunman’s actions were not foreseeable and school officials reacted quickly to the emergency.
The plaintiffs in the consolidated wrongful death/negligence lawsuit are Bryan and Cindy Muehlberger, the father and mother of the late 15-year-old Gracie Anne Muehlberger, and Frank and Nancy Blackwell, the father and mother of the late 14-year-old Dominic Blackwell.
The teens were fatally wounded when 16-year-old Nathan Berhow opened fire at the Santa Clarita school on Nov. 14, 2019. School security video showed him walking into the quad, pulling a .45-caliber handgun from his backpack, shooting five people around him, then fatally turning the gun on himself. Three other students were wounded.
In court papers filed Tuesday in Chatsworth Superior Court, lawyers for the district state that Berhow was a junior in the 2019-2020 school year and was enrolled in physics, American literature, history, aerospace, engineering, psychology and math, and also was on the school’s cross country team.
“None of his teachers knew anything about Nathan that gave them notice that he posed a danger to himself or others,” the lawyers for the district state in their court papers, adding that he had no discipline record at the school.
On Nov. 14, 2019, Berhow did not attend his first-period class and was marked absent by his teacher, the district’s attorneys state in their court papers. Teachers are encouraged to report absences early in the class period but are not required to do so and some do not do so until the end of class, according to the district’s attorneys’ court papers.
Parents are notified of their child’s absence from class via an automated call system and asked to provide a reason for the student’s absence, according to the court papers of the attorneys for the district.
About a third of the students at Saugus High had a first-period class and on a regular school day, students typically congregated in a large open area called the quad near the school office as they waited for first-period to end, according to lawyers for the district.
At about 7:36 a.m., a school video showed Berhow putting his sunglasses on and taking a handgun from his backpack, then begin firing about 10 seconds later, according to the court papers of lawyers for the district.
“Nathan fired the handgun at others and turned the weapon on himself,” the district’s lawyers state in their court papers. “A campus supervisor estimated the shots were over in 15 to 20 seconds. The video from the school’s camera system revealed no sign of trouble prior to the incident.”
Attorneys for the plaintiffs have not presented evidence in discovery responses that show the district knew or should have known Nathan posed a potential danger before the incident, according to the court papers of the district’s lawyers.
Several Saugus High teachers who taught Berhow have submitted sworn declarations in support of the district’s dismissal motion, including psychology teacher Adam Bratt.
“The only issue I had with Nathan was he failed to hand in some homework assignments around the end of October (2019),” Bratt says. “I advised him that if he handed them in by a certain time, I would give him full credit. Thereafter, he submitted all the missing homework.”
Jerome Castaneda, then the Saugus High campus supervisor, said security reacted quickly to the sounds of gunfire.
“When I heard the first shot, students began to scatter,” Castaneda says. “I ran to the adjacent cafeteria building where a door was propped open. I entered and closed the door to lock down that building.”
As Castaneda ran to the cafeteria door, he heard additional shots for another 15 to 20 seconds, he says.
“I heard no further shots after that point,” Castaneda says. “After three to five minutes inside the cafeteria, I left it and observed there were people in the quad area assisting injured students on the ground. I went to assist them.”
Lisa Hampsten, the school secretary, says in her declaration that after she heard shots that day, she immediately told a co-worker to call 911.
Marcus Garrett, then the school’s assistant principal, says in his sworn statement that he did not hear the gunfire, but that after being told of it he locked up the school’s office, then later learned of Berhow’s identification from papers in the student’s backpack. He said he subsequently reviewed a security video of the incident.
The images showed Berhow reaching into his backpack and beginning firing, then eventually falling to the ground, according to Garrett.
“The students around him were calm until the shooting started and then they scattered,” according to Garrett.
The plaintiffs’ attorneys maintain in discovery responses that Berhow had a history of cutting himself and had written things indicating a belief he was sadistic and psychotic. They also say Berhow had a troubled home life and became more withdrawn after his father died in 2017.
The plaintiff’s attorneys also claim that the campus supervision staff may have been short-staffed the day of the shootings and that the campus supervisor ran to a cafeteria to take shelter.
The district’s dismissal motion is scheduled to be heard Sept. 29 by Judge Stephen F. Pfahler.