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Written by Cindy Dorfmann

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February has been a monumental month in the fight to stop school shootings. For the first time in the US, a parent has been convicted in a mass school shooting. On February 4, 2024, according to court records, Jennifer Crumbley, was convicted of four counts of involuntary manslaughter in the Oxford High School Mass shooting that took place in 2021. Jennifer’s son 15- year old Ethan Crumbley was convicted on December 8, 2021 for using a 9 mm to conduct a school shooting at Oxford High School that took the lives of four victims and sent seven others to the hospital where they sustained life threatening injuries. The victims were 17- year old Madisyn Baldwin, 17- year old Justin Schilling, 16- year old Tate Myre, and 14-year old Hana St. Juliana.

Our hearts go out to each of those victims, their families and friends.

On November 13, 2019 my 16- year old step daughter was staying at our house, my husband shared custody of her with his ex-wife and we alternated weeks. She had been telling us on and off for a few months that she was worried because her school started having “Active shooter drills” to help teachers and students prepare in the event they have a mass shooting. Although these active shooter drills are necessary, my step-daughter was worried that the drills would give one of the kids at her school ideas about how to conduct a mass shooting instead of preventing one. We tried to quell her fears and brush it off but the anxiety of having a high school age step daughter who had to worry about a school shooter weighed heavily on my mind. I thought back to when I was 16 and the idea of someone shooting up my school was not completely out of the question, in fact, I went to school with someone who was wrongfully convicted of killing his parents and another classmate had been shot in the chest by her jealous boyfriend but independent of those two tragic events no one had come into my high school with an automatic weapon threatening to shoot everyone in their path as if we were in a video game. Why should my teenage step-daughter or any child have to even think about a mass shooting while at school, the one place she should feel secure and protected from the world outside? We live in the United States of America not some war torn country, how is this even happening? According to The Washington Post, there have been 394 school shootings since Columbine in 1999.

After dinner on November 13, 2019, I was doing the dishes when I suddenly had this overwhelming feeling that my step-daughter should not go to school the next day. Being her step mom she was used to my over protectiveness and I am one of those people who has ‘premonitions’ and ‘intuition’ but this time I felt a twist in my stomach when I said, “Maybe you should work from home tomorrow.” She was hyper focused on her classes and she did not want to miss anything so she ignored my nudge and I didn’t even know why I had said it but I just had this overwhelming feeling that something dark was in the air but I couldn’t put my finger on what that meant. Either way, my premonition did nothing to stop her from going to school the next day. My husband got up and dropped her off early, sometime around 7 am. She liked to get to school early to work on homework, catch up with friends, get settled before classes start and there is an open quad where everyone gathers before homeroom.

Saugus High School is an open campus with rolling hills about thirty minutes north of Los Angeles. This Santa Clarita Valley is magical, it’s a big small town where everyone is familiar with one another, a planned community surrounded by winding bike paths that lead to mediterranean style houses, clusters of trees, lots of wildlife that inhabit dry river beds and a lot of community activities that bring everyone together. I felt safe here until 7:39 am on November 14, 2019 when we received a text from my step-daughter, it is every parent’s worst nightmare: There’s an active shooter on campus.

My whole body starts to shake as we jump into the car. Why didn’t I trust my gut?? I call my friend whose husband works at the sheriff’s department she’s screeching, “It’s true, yes! We don’t know how many victims yet. They locked down the elementary school too.” My husband is speeding through traffic and tears have created a large lump in my throat making it difficult to breath. Why why why did we let her go to school today?? I start to pray. I keep my thoughts firmly on my step daughter telepathically telling her that we are coming! Not having kids of my own, I have always felt blessed to have my step-children and my heart is frozen with fear at the thought of something happening to one of them, especially something like this.

The traffic is clogged, sirens wailing, so many sirens, police cruisers zipping past us, racing around us. We park half a mile away and run to the school, pushing our way through the crowd right up to the front where the news cameras are. I shove my press pass in everyone’s face and we start firing questions at the school officials but no one is saying much. Hundreds of parents are filling up the streets, dozens of swat team members are in position. News cameras from every station have posted up on the sidewalk waiting for the information to start spilling out but the one thumping question that is resonating through the thick air is did they catch the shooter yet?? And if they did who is he? My imagination is racing and I imagine a teenage boy hiding automatic weapons under his trench coat. Who is doing this and why? But more importantly my mind landed on the haunting question: Who are the parents of this kid and why are they allowing him to have a gun??

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© Cindy Dorfmann Saugus High School November 14, 2019

My husband is frantically texting with my step-daughter but there is no response. What is going on? It takes all of our energy to NOT run into the school, we are being pushed back from the sidewalk by law enforcement, their faces are tense and you can see that they are also trying to stay calm because most of them have children inside this building where a madman is running around with a gun. The news cameras in front of us go live and within minutes we are bombarded with calls from family around the country, my sister, my husband’s sister, my parents, his mother- is she ok? What’s going on? Where are you? A thousand questions with no answers.

Finally, pieces of information begin slipping out, four people have been hurt. Then a text from my stepdaughter “I’m ok they won’t let us leave yet”. Then someone in the crowd yells, “They got him! It’s over.” Is it over? It’s the first deep breath I have taken in several hours, I hug my husband who is overcome with relief and we both start to cry. But, still we do not know who the victims are or the shooter and you can see that the journalists are anxiously trying to report with little to no information. The swat team moves in and then finally alerts us that they are going to bring them out, the kids are coming out but we have to let them get onto the buses and then meet them at Central Park down the street. It’s all happening in a fog before us, the buses, the swat teams, the helicopters the kids file out of the school, their faces stoic. the noise, the chaos and then the eerie feelings that this is not a nightmare and we are not asleep.

How is this happening? I want to scream on the top of my lungs. We live in SUBURBIA in AMERICA when did it become normal for our schools to become violent war zones? When did shooter training become part of the curriculum? When did it become common place that teenagers have to worry about going to school because someone might show up with a gun and try and shoot them? How did our society crack in half before our eyes and more importantly WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO ABOUT IT?

When we finally see my stepdaughter we hug her tightly, almost squeezing the air out of her lungs. She explains that it happened in the quad, she was in a classroom above the quad, they heard the popping and the teacher barricaded the door, she covered her friends to keep them safe in the corner of the room and they heard it again. Pop. Pop. And then they had to wait, not knowing if the shooter was outside their door or if he would come. Her heart pounding in her chest she waited and covered her friends to protect them. They waited and waited and then finally were told that it was over. “I just wanted to make sure that my friends were safe,” she says holding back the tears. The idea of my step daughter huddled in the corner of her classroom covering her friends to protect them from an active shooter is heartbreaking.

Eight hours later when we get her home and turn on the television it’s surreal to see ourselves in the midst of the chaos. Ryan Seacrest calls and wants to do an interview with my husband. Everyone is still reeling from the shock of the day. Grateful that she is safe, I am worried about the future. How is she ever going to get over this and what are we going to do to help her? How do you get over the fear? Will this affect her for the rest of her life? Will she be afraid to go into crowded places? What about college will she want to study from home? The questions are endless of how this day is going to affect the rest of her life and it makes me angry.

Sixteen seconds, that is all it took for a 16- year old boy, on his birthday, to take a a 45 caliber “ghost gun” out of his backpack and unload on the victims 14- year old Dominic Blackwell and 15-year old Gracie Ann Meuhlberger before turning the gun on himself. Three other students were injured during the shooting but luckily they survived.

My stepdaughter, her classmates, teachers and the families of the victims will always carry the scar of that tragic day and how two beautiful kids were stolen away in just 16 seconds. In 2023, the parents of the victims filed a 50 million dollar lawsuit against the William H Hart School district but no amount of money will be able to take away their pain.

There were candlelight vigils, go fund me charities, an outpouring of love for the victims and their families but in the days that followed the undertone could not be ignored; everyone wanted to know how this could happen. No one ever thinks these things can happen to them until it does.

Although at the time of the shooting I had compassion for the mother of the boy who committed this terroristic act because her story is also a sad one. Now, I am of a different mindset, once you experience this horror you want to make sure that it NEVER happens again to anyone…but it did happen again and again and continues to happen which is mind-blowing.

In 2020, according to court documents, the parents of the victims filed a lawsuit against the William H. Hart school district upward of 50 million dollars citing that there were dozens of warning signs that the shooter, 16- year old Nathaniel Berhow was troubled but these alarms were ignored by school officials. Berhow used a ghost gun that he purchased on the internet to commit the terrorist act. The District attorney did not press charges against Berhow’s mother. Independent of whether Berhow’s mother should be charged or not I am not a judge. However, I do know that children are our responsibility and when I say OUR, I mean ADULTS, we are responsible for children.

Children are not capable of making decisions on their own, they are not adults and should not be given adult things like guns, nor should they be able to buy these adult things on the internet. We should know what they are spending money on and monitor their time on the internet, what are they buying, who are they talking to what are they doing? We need to guide them we need to oversee the choices that they are making. In our fast paced, technology saturated world we forget that we have to pay attention to everything that kids are doing, those cries for help that we sometimes want to ignore because we don’t know what to do about it or we are just overworked, stressed and tired. There were reports from the students I spoke to at my step-daughter’s high school claiming that Nathaniel was wandering around the quad for about forty minutes before he opened fire. Someone had to have noticed him wandering around but yet no one asked him if something was wrong. Maybe if one adult had stopped and said, “What are you doing? Aren’t you supposed to be in class?” this whole tragedy could have been avoided.

The Jennifer Crumbley case could be a pivoting precedent for us as a society, reminding us of the important role we take on as parents and step-parents, teachers, counselors, coaches and neighbors. It takes a village to raise a child why can’t the same village stop a child from turning to violence to get attention? Knowing that there is a consequence for giving a teenager a gun, or allowing them to use the internet without supervision, or ignoring their subtle cry for help may force us as a society to take responsibility for this nightmare. I’m not here to debate gun laws, I have my own opinions about that but I am certain that something must change because we can not continue to go down this dangerous path of accepting mass shootings in schools. Children and teens should have the ability to go to school without having to worry about being murdered.

I am grateful that my beautiful step-daughter was not hurt on November 14, 2019 but my heart goes out to each and every victim of a school shooting and their families especially to the beautiful children who senselessly lost their lives on that tragic day.

^^Photo courtesy of Rob Dorfmann 2019

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