Rafu Wire and Staff Reports
SANTA CLARITA — The parents of a 15-year-old girl who was shot and killed by a fellow student at Saugus High School last year are suing the William S. Hart Union High School District, alleging a failure to take basic steps to supervise students on campus.
The wrongful death/negligence lawsuit was filed Nov. 16 in Los Angeles Superior Court by Bryan and Cindy Muehberger, the father and mother of Gracie Anne Muehlberger. They also are suing the coroner’s office, alleging it released their daughter’s name before they could notify friends and family members about the tragedy.
The Muehlbergers are seeking unspecified damages.
A representative for the district said the district cannot comment on pending litigation, but released a statement regarding the first-year anniversary of the shooting, in which 14-year-old Dominic Blackwell was also killed, three other students were wounded and the shooter, Nathan Tennosuke Berhow, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
“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,” the statement read. “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 teens were fatally wounded when Berhow opened fire at the Santa Clarita school on Nov. 14, 2019, his 16th birthday. Security video showed him walk into the quad, pull a .45-caliber handgun from his backpack, shoot five people around him, then turn the gun on himself.
“In eight short seconds, Gracie’s life and Dominic’s life were taken,” Bryan Muehlberger said. “Our lives, the lives of the Blackwells, the lives of so many young children at this school, their families and our small community were changed forever.”
Both families are suing the school district, saying that it didn’t do enough to prevent the shooting.
“I always tell Frank [Blackwell], I wish I never met him … It shouldn’t be this way, right?” Bryan Muehlberger said. “We should be getting ready for the holidays with our kids.”
The Muehlbergers’ attorney, Julie Fieber of Cotchett Pitre McCarthy LLP, said parents trust schools to take basic, common-sense steps to keep children stay safe once they come onto campus.
“Why even have security cameras if no one is going to monitor them?” Fieber asked. “Why have guards on the campus if they aren’t going to guard the students?”
She said Berhow was an “obviously troubled student who spent nearly an hour standing in a trance-like state in the middle of campus.”
Although he was supposed to be in class, he was allowed to hang out in the quad area for about 40 minutes without any questioning from school supervisors, staff, and/or teachers, the suit alleges.
Campus security was supposed to be provided by one unarmed sheriff’s deputy and nine campus supervisors, but none were present at the time of the shooting, according to the suit.
“The school failed in its duty to ensure that personnel were watching over the campus and students that day,” Fieber alleged.
“So, it isn’t the eight seconds. It’s the 43 minutes prior to that, that something could have been done, and that’s what angers me,” Muehlberger told NBC4.
“I was talking to one of Dominic’s friends and … her and her sibling are, they’re afraid to go back to school,” Frank Blackwell, a veteran, said, adding, “I’ve been in two wars and there’s no reason that a kid that puts on their backpack should feel the same way as I feel when I put on my … vest to go to work. It’s just completely unacceptable.”
No criminal charges in the case are pending, as the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office recently announced that it will not prosecute the shooter’s mother, Mami Matsuura-Berhow.
Sheriff’s investigators had recommended two counts for contributing to the delinquency of a minor and criminal storage of a firearm for not locking up the weapons her son later took to school. A spokesperson in the District Attorney’s Office said there was insufficient evidence to pursue the case against the mother.
Investigators said the .45-caliber handgun used in the shooting was a “ghost gun” assembled from a variety of parts. It was unclear whether the gun had been assembled by Berhow’s father, who died in 2017, or by Berhow himself.
Several weapons, some of them unregistered, were found in the home where Berhow lived with his mother and sister. These may have belonged to the father, who was reported to have been an avid hunter.
The shooter’s motive remains unknown, as he did not leave a suicide note.
A GoFundMe page was established for the Berhow family shortly after the shooting by a former student at the school, her sister, a current student, and their mother.
The explanation for the fundraiser read, in part: “The family of Nathaniel Berhow had no idea that dropping him off at school on his birthday would lead to such horrific events. This was a seemingly normal child, and this whole event remains a tragic mystery. Why and how could a 16-year-old do this? That’s what everyone is wondering, including Nathaniel’s mother and sister …
“There are no excuses for his actions, and we are not looking for any. Many will disagree with this fundraiser, but I urge you all to look deep into your hearts and think about his family during this time.”