Saugus High School choir director Kaitlin Holt and about 35 students were listening to an audio recording on the morning of Nov. 14 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, and tragically, two students died that day. But actions by Holt, a member of Hart District Teachers Association (HDTA) in Santa Clarita, and other educators, parents and neighbors did much to calm panicked students and may have saved lives. Here is an excerpt of our story at californiaeducator.org/calm-during-crisis.
Holt, a first-year teacher, says that while she hadn’t heard any shots, she had to assume the unthinkable was happening, and directed students into her small adjoining office, which had a door with a lock. After barricading the door, she 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.
A student said she thought she had been shot. “I used my phone flashlight to look,” Holt says, “and she had a gunshot wound.” Holt 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. She exited the office to retrieve it.
“If 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 educators do.”
The kits were distributed districtwide last school year for the first time, the idea of two students whose father is an emergency room doctor, says HDTA President John Minkus. Trainings were held at all school sites during the distribution, with follow-ups scheduled annually.
Holt dressed a wound on the side of the student’s torso, which she later learned was the exit wound of a bullet that entered the student’s back. The student said she thought she might have been shot in the arm as well, which Holt confirmed. With the kit already used, Holt turned to a first aid kit for something that would help stop the bleeding. She settled on a maxi pad, taping it onto the student’s arm.
Holt says 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.
A student called 911, and Holt shared their location on campus and described the situation. Officers and paramedics eventually arrived.
When Holt and her students finally walked out the choir classroom door, it was into a world where Santa Clarita had joined Columbine and Parkland on the ever-growing list of communities whose schools had been struck with tragedy. Holt says she still hasn’t processed the whole experience.
“My students said I was very calm, but I just needed a job,” she 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 student. 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 trauma.
“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. Any educator who’s played out a similar scenario in their head 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. 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.”