CTA & You News

‘I Never Felt Fear’: Calm During Crisis

Saugus High School choir teacher maintains focus when the unthinkable happens

Saugus High School Choir Director Kaitlin Holt and about 35 of her first-period students were listening to an audio recording of one of their recent rehearsals at a very high volume on the morning of Nov. 14, just like any other day at school in Santa Clarita. But when her classroom door burst open with terrified students seeking safety and reporting gunshots fired on campus, it was the start of a nightmare that every educator fears—the time when it’s not a drill, it’s a school shooting happening here.

Kaitlin Holt, Saugus High School Choir Director and
Hart District Teachers Assocation member

Holt, 26 and in her first year teaching, says that while she hadn’t heard any shots, she had to assume the unthinkable was happening, directing the approximately 40 students into her adjoining small office, which had a door with a lock. As they packed in elbow-to-elbow in the small room, Holt barricaded the door while her choir president retrieved a fire extinguisher to potentially use as a weapon to fend off intruders, if needed. Holt, a member of Hart District Teachers Association (HDTA), turned to her students, many of whom were distraught and sobbing.

“We don’t know if this is real, but we need to be quiet and calm and act like this is real,” she told them in a direct and reassuring tone, before making a startling discovery that confirmed the fears were indeed reality. “Then a student said she thought she had been shot. I used my phone flashlight to look and yes, she had a gunshot wound. I told everyone I needed them to stay calm and they did a good job at that.”

With the gravity of the situation weighing on the minds in the crowded room, Holt immediately looked to treat the student’s wound. She remembered being handed a gunshot wound kit when she first started working at Saugus High in January and watching a tutorial video on how to use it. Rather than pack it away in a drawer, Holt made a conscious decision to keep the kit (which included gloves, clothing shears, tension wrap with gauze, and tourniquets) in an accessible location on a shelf, which is exactly where it was located when she exited the office to retrieve it.

“I don’t know why or how I had a gunshot kit but I’m glad I did,” she says.

Holt teaches 100+ students a day and directs five choirs, including concert, jazz and show.

The gunshot wound kits were distributed districtwide last school year for the first time, the idea of two students whose father is an emergency room doctor, according to HDTA President John Minkus. He said trainings were held at all school sites during the distribution, with follow-ups scheduled annually. Gunshot kit in hand, Holt returned to the office and asked her students to squish a little tighter so she could have some room to tend to the injured girl.

Holt dressed a gunshot wound on the side of the student’s torso, which she later learned was actually the exit wound of a bullet that entered the student’s back—in wrapping the exit wound, she also covered the entrance wound. The student then said she thought she might have been shot in the arm as well, which Holt confirmed to be true. With the only gunshot kit already used to tend to the other wound, Holt turned to her first aid kit for something that would help stop the bleeding. She considered putting a band-aid on the wound, laughing with the injured student about what the hospital doctors would think when she showed up with a band-aid on a bullet wound. Holt settled on a maxi-pad, taping it into place on the student’s arm.

“Fight or flight kicked in. If you’re thinking about the safety of your students, it overcomes your fear. I never felt fear.”

Kaitlin Holt, Saugus High School Choir Director

Holt said the girl stayed in remarkably good spirits during the entire ordeal, and the two quickly formed a bond, laughing and joking to break the tension.

“She and I both use humor to cope,” she says. “I think my other students were very confused by it.”

A student called 911 and handed the phone to Holt, who shared their location on campus and described the situation.

“Don’t worry Miss Holt, I’m an Eagle Scout,” said a boy who she asked to help the injured student while she spoke to the emergency operator.

When officers arrived, they instructed everyone to exit the room with their hands on their heads. Paramedics entered to tend to the injured student. Holt said they were the last in the school to be evacuated, about two hours after her classroom door first burst open.

When they emerged, they learned more about the horror of the morning—how during 16 seconds of terror and gunfire, two students were tragically killed: Dominic Blackwell, 14, and Gracie Anne Muehlberger, 15. When Holt and her students finally walked out the choir classroom door, it was into a world where Columbine and Parkland were no longer only places where terrible things happened but where they were kindred spirits in recovery on an ever-growing list where no community ever wants to see its name added.

Though a week has since passed, Holt says the whole experience still hasn’t processed for her.

“It doesn’t feel like it really happened. And somehow, while it was happening, it didn’t seem like a big deal,” she says. “She needed first aid, so of course I’m going to give her first aid.”

‘Anyone would have done what I did’

Holt tells the story as though she’s told it many times before, which she has—her heroic tale appearing on news networks around the world. She’s speaks about what happened that morning very matter-of-factly, showing the same composure that kept 40 students calm in the middle of insanity and potentially helped save a student’s life. Admitting that the sight of blood made her “freak out” inside for a second, she said she pulled it together and did what she knew she had to do.

“My students said I was very calm, but I just needed a job,” Holt says. “Fight or flight kicked in. If you’re thinking about the safety of your students, it overcomes your fear. I never felt fear.”

Holt says she’s had the chance to spend time with the injured girl since fate brought them together Nov. 14, visiting her home and meeting her family. She’s eager to continue their unique relationship—as long as it continues to be a positive experience for the girl and doesn’t trigger negative emotions from the extreme trauma they both experienced.

“I feel very connected to her and would like to be in her life forever, if she wants,” Holt says.

The choir teacher shakes off the hero label, saying that it was pure instinct that drove her actions. Any educator who’s played out a similar scenario in their heads will be able to react with the same composure and focus, Holt says.

“I genuinely believe that anyone would have done what I did and that everyone has it in them,” she says. “If you’re an educator and you worry that you’ll be afraid, I don’t think that’s what will happen. You’ll know what you need to do and you’ll do it. That’s what we do.”

“I’m making our performances optional,” Holt says of her choirs. “But my students wanted to sing, so we’ve been singing together in another high school.”

Educators at Saugus High are already preparing for the return of students and how to best support them when the school reopens Dec. 2 (“I’m just trying to meet them where they’re at,” Holt says). To assist staff through the difficult time, Holt says there are grief counselors on site, furry therapy dogs seemingly everywhere she looks and even mandatory mental health check-ins for staff particularly impacted by the shooting.

“They’ve done a really good job of putting resources out there for us,” she says.

HDTA President Minkus says that the local association has worked in conjunction with Hart Union High School District on all facets of the recovery. Independent of the district, the local is debriefing every site’s individual needs (since all schools went to hard lockdown that day) and compiling a list of needs and concerns from each site in order to individualize specifics within the district’s general protocols.

Holt’s message to her fellow educators: This is going to happen again, so start preparing now.

“The way you can help is to talk to your students. We did everything right and lives were still lost,” she says. “I don’t know what needs to be done, but insanity is doing the same thing every time and expecting different results.”

Holt also asked for others to be mindful of how their fear impacts the way they talk to a Santa Clarita community that is still deep in grief. She said a lot of discussion about how and why the shooting occurred is not sympathetic and compassionate to a shocked community and is having negative impacts.

“It’s really affecting our kids. They need your kindness,” says Holt, her voice breaking slightly for the only time during a near-hour conversation. “Be kind to our kids and to each other.”

For ways to support the Saugus High and Santa Clarita communities, visit www.saugusstrong.org. To learn more about and donate to Holt’s Saugus High School Choir program, visit www.sauguschoirs.com.

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