A joint lawsuit brought by the parents of two Saugus High School students killed in a Nov. 4, 2019, on-campus shooting will proceed to trial, according to a ruling issued by the Los Angeles Superior Court.
Trial will likely begin in January 2024.
In a brief filed Tuesday, the parents of Gracie Muehlberger, 15, and Dominic Blackwell, 14, allege that the Hart Union High School District had no program in place to identify and intervene with troubled students and, as a result, missed numerous red flags associated with Nathaniel Tennosuke Berhow, the suicidal student who committed the murders. They also allege the district did not adequately supervise or secure the school campus.
Two girls, ages 15 and 14, and a boy, age 14, were injured.
Berhow, who committed the crime on his 16th birthday, shot himself in the head and died one day later. Aside from attending the same school, the gunman and his victims had no known connection.
Berhow’s parents had divorced in 2016 and he lived with his mother and sister. Several students described him as quiet.
The district had argued that it had no duty to protect the students and that the shooting was unforeseeable, both arguments rejected by the court.
The court held that the general awareness of potential campus gun violence and need for safety protocols is the baseline foundation for the district’s specific duty to enact protections for student-on-student gun violence.
It further held that the district’s argument that it could deny that ongoing threat unless and until a shooting occurred “myopically” limited the debate over campus safety requirements and “obtusely” denied an ongoing, well-documented concern.
The court also recognized the vast difference between the resources required to help a single student in distress versus the outlays required to increase overall campus security.
“The district ignored numerous warning signs in the days and months before the shooting, including an assailant with a history of family abuse whose friends had become concerned over obvious signs of his distress just days before the shooting,” said Julie Fieber, a partner at Cotchett, Pitrie & McCarthy, LLP. “Those concerns went unreported, and the district’s advertised student text to tip hotline was not working at the time of the shooting.”
“The judge has made clear that a school district cannot turn a blind eye to the risks of potential violence from troubled teenagers and inadequate campus supervision and security. It will now be a jury’s job to determine if the Hart Union High School District failed in its duty to protect the students whose lives were tragically lost in this foreseeable shooting by a suicidal student who was able to carry a gun onto campus through an unmonitored gate.
“We believe the jury will find that the school simply failed in its duty to ensure that personnel were watching over the campus and students that day.”