STEM School students walk out of shooting vigil amid frustration

Event falls into disorder; students decry political aspect

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A vigil that brought politicians, activists and several hundred students and parents to Highlands Ranch High School after the nearby STEM School shooting devolved into chaos and chants, with many students expressing frustration with the event’s political overtones on gun policy.

“Let STEM kids speak!” shouted one voice in the crowd May 8 during the event organized by Brady, which describes itself as a gun violence prevention organization.

One day earlier, eight students sustained wounds and one — 18-year-old Kendrick Ray Castillo — was killed in a shooting at STEM High School in Highlands Ranch. The vigil crowd at Highlands Ranch High’s gymnasium heard addresses from U.S. Rep. Jason Crow, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and area students and activists. But a long line of students decried the lack of speaking time for STEM students.

Kallie Leyba, president of the Douglas County School District’s teachers’ union, had her speech cut short by the student yelling for organizers to let STEM students address the crowd. Leyba responded that organizers hadn't been able to coordinate with students from STEM before the event.

“We’re right here,” a student in the crowd replied to applause.

What began then was an unraveling of the event that laid bare the frustrations students had with its format. Leyba told the STEM students in the crowd to come out into the hallway from the gym so organizers could rework the schedule to allow them to speak.

Applause erupted when more than a dozen students who appeared to be from STEM left the bleachers and exited the gym. But just as the lights dimmed and cellphone flashlights turned on for a moment dedicated to the shooting’s victims, a woman identifying herself only as a mother walked up to the lectern and spoke into the microphone. She said the media had told STEM students to leave. Inside the gym, it wasn’t clear what spurred that statement. Many reporters taking video and photos were in attendance, and some followed students into the hall.

Large parts of the crowd then stood up and funneled into the hallway amid murmurs about the media. Confusion and disorder took over the crowd, finding some STEM students and others — a few dozen people — gathered outside the school’s front doors.

“It was all political,” a student said, as others talked among themselves and decried the political tone of the event. One speaker inside — Laura Reeves, with the organization Moms Demand Action — had mentioned the National Rifle Association, or NRA, as a reason she said national gun policy wasn’t adequate.

“Don’t use Kendrick’s name for political reasons!” another student outside shouted, as chants of “Mental health!” and “F--- the media!” took hold. Said another student: “It’s not about the guns!”

A chant then began to direct the group back inside, where many more gathered around the lectern and students — including from STEM — began to speak.

One person led the crowd in the gym to hold hands and bow heads in a prayer for people to “fight not against each other, but for each other.”

That served as a turning point, when a long succession of students took turns on the microphone amid a calmer crowd.

One student said she met Castillo as a young child and went to school with him, adding he was “the kindest, gentlest soul you’d ever meet.” Another said he was angry that people “came to talk about gun control.” Some said they were friends with Castillo and attended school with him. One student called the vigil a “political stunt.” He added, “We walked out. We were not kicked out.”

The group held a moment of silence for STEM School and Castillo.

A news release announcing the vigil said speakers would include local elected officials, students with activist groups and "students, parents and teachers from STEM," among others. Some local students did speak, but STEM students in the crowd felt unheard. Organizers said they tried to reach members of the STEM community through personal connections but couldn't connect with anyone willing to speak.

For Highlands Ranch High teacher Emily Muellenberg, one of the event organizers, focusing on gun violence prevention efforts can be a way of “community-based solutions seeking,” but she said she understands that “any feeling that a political message was being imparted felt upsetting and not appropriately sensitive.”

“For those who spoke up, I am in awe of your strength, and I am proud of you for asking for what you needed in that moment. I am sorry we couldn’t do better, but your resilience and your passion will help fuel your healing,” Muellenberg said. “Your honoring of Kendrick Castillo was powerful, and we thank you for that. We sincerely hope that by the end, there was some chance to release and begin to heal for many of you.”

The Brady organization said its "deepest condolences are with the STEM School students, faculty and families" in a statement after the event.

"We are deeply sorry any part of this vigil did not provide the support, caring and sense of community we sought to foster and facilitate and which we know is so crucial to communities who suffer the trauma of gun violence," the statement said.

Despite the tension toward the media expressed by some in the group that had walked outside, some students spoke to reporters after the event.

Logan Griffith, a STEM senior, said he was in the English classroom with 20 to 30 others when the shooting occurred in that room at his school May 7.

“I think I speak for STEM when I say we do thank Highlands Ranch High School for hosting this,” Griffith said as the crowd dispersed. “However, this was for Kendrick Castillo. Not for our senator, not for anyone else.”

He hopes people can honor Castillo and that the events at the vigil serve “as a statement to keep the politics where they belong — keep them in Congress.”

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