After Saugus High School shooting, teens use TikTok to reflect and mourn

"I don't want to go back to school because I don't want to get shot," TikTok user Kali.V23 said in a video.
Image: Students are evacuated from Saugus High School onto a school bus after a shooting at the school left two students dead and three wounded
Students are evacuated from Saugus High School after a shooting left two students dead and three wounded on Thursday in Santa Clarita, California.Mario Tama / Getty Images

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By Kalhan Rosenblatt

Lauren Olmeda was getting ready for school just before 8 a.m. Thursday, when her mother knocked on her bedroom door, telling her she wouldn't be going to class that day.

Olmeda's mother told her the sobering news: There had been a shooting at Saugus High School, just 5 miles from Canyon High School, where Olmeda, 17, is a senior. A 16-year-old male suspect had entered Saugus and opened fire, killing two students and injuring three more.

With the local schools in their Santa Clarita, California, community on lockdown, Olmeda could only sit on her couch, glued to the news, and text with her friends at Saugus. By 2 p.m., Olmeda had made a montage of the images she was seeing on the news and turned to post it on the outlet where she felt safe to vent her fears: TikTok.

"I kind of put that together along with some pictures I found, and I thought that I would put it on TikTok because I thought it would just be good to spread it and say, 'Look, this just happened to a normal person like me,'" Olmeda told NBC News. "It affected my city, my community and so it could literally happen anywhere."

Many teens like Olmeda in the Santa Clarita community, roiling with the terror of a school shooting in their own backyard, also turned to TikTok as a safe environment to vent their fears and frustrations.

The short-form video app TikTok is typically known as a place for lighthearted lip-sync videos, dance challenges and skits. But Thursday, teens like Olmeda used it as a common ground to connect with others and to reflect on the shooting at Saugus.

Some spoke of losing friends, others talked about their genuine fear of returning to neighboring schools in the Santa Clarita area, and others shared their prayers for the school that had been the latest victim of gun violence.

Olmeda said because young people are the primary users of TikTok and because it’s easy to amplify videos on the app’s For You Page, it’s the ideal place for young people to share their thoughts on shootings and spread awareness.

"On TikTok, it's so easy for anyone to see your video because they have the 'For You Page,'" Olmeda said of TikTok's infinite scroll homepage. "I feel like because it is such a young audience of people who could possibly go through this ... people being between middle school, high school and like early in college, I feel like it's a good place to discuss this kind of stuff because everyone on there kind of is so young."

As of Friday afternoon, the hashtag "SaugusStrong" had grown rapidly on TikTok. It has now been viewed nearly 38,000 times. "SaugusHighSchool" had been viewed more than 7,000 times, and "Saugus" had been viewed nearly 19,000 times.

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Dozens of teens joined Olmeda in sharing their horror on TikTok as the news of the shooting broke.

One TikTok user, Angela Grisanti, who graduated from Saugus High School in June, filmed herself with tears streaming down her cheeks as she discussed the shooting in a video posted to the short-form video app.

Grisanti told NBC News that she was in yearbook at Saugus and still has underclassmen friends who attend there.

"I just graduated from Saugus High School and if you haven't paid attention to the news or the world recently there was a shooting there this morning," Grisanti, 18, said in the approximately 1-minute video.

Like Olmeda, Grisanti said her mother told her of the shooting and advised she check in with friends. Grisanti said she posted the video to TikTok in an effort to reach more young people and spread awareness of the tragedy that her alma mater had endured.

“I cried all day and it was really scary to think that that could happen to where I went to school," Grisanti said.

By Thursday evening, more videos began appearing in response to the shooting, with young people expressing their grief for the students who were killed and their fear of returning to schools in the area.

"I don't want to go back to school, and I'm not having a mental breakdown. I'm genuinely terrified to go back to school," one user who goes by Kali.V23 on the app said in a video.

Kali.V23 said she goes to a school 7 miles from Saugus High School and that she feared her school could be the next to suffer gun violence.

"I don't want to go back to school because I don't want to get shot," Kali.V23 said in the video, choking back tears. "I've got a boyfriend and friends and family that I love and don't want to leave behind, and I don't want to go through that. I'm genuinely terrified."

A Saugus High School student, who goes by the name Kahilan on TikTok and spoke with The New York Times, posted a video in which she shared her first-hand account hearing the gunshots before fleeing to the band room.

"It was probably one of the most terrifying days of my life. I don't really even know how to describe it. It was awful. I don't know how somebody could do that," Kahilan, 16, said in the video.

Kahilan said she was outside when she heard the first shots ring out and ran to the band room because she knew a large group of people would be there.

"Everyone was playing their instruments and being really loud. They all wouldn't have known and it's crazy to think, like, that it actually happened at my school. I never would have thought," she said, her voice trailing off.

Some of the videos posted to TikTok encouraged others to wear blue in support of Saugus High School while others, from students across the country, said that they were keeping those affected in their prayers.

Olmeda said that TikTok gave her a way to connect with other members of the Santa Clarita community who were experiencing the same emotions she was confronting.

But she added that seeing how many people on the video app had been in close proximity to the tragedy and how it affected them was also jarring.

"One person commented saying that they were really close to the shooter when it happened. Other people commented saying they didn't go to Saugus but that they were impacted very much because of the community we live in and how tight we are and how safe we thought we were. ... It just kind of shook me," she said.