HIGHLANDS RANCH, Colo. — Students and parents walked out of a planned vigil for STEM School Highlands Ranch students Wednesday, when they said the conversation turned into political theater.
Nine students were shot by two of their classmates just before 2:00 p.m. Tuesday. One of those students, 18-year-old Kendrick Castillo, was killed. Eight others were injured.
The event was originally described as “an interfaith memorial vigil,” to be hosted at nearby Highlands Ranch High School.
Some students that are part of a group called Team ENOUGH organized the vigil. Team ENOUGH is a youth program that is part of the Brady Campaign, a national organization that advocates for stricter gun control laws and gun violence prevention efforts.
Student organizers said they wanted to provide an opportunity for the community to come together and heal. Many students at Highlands Ranch High School are close friends with students at STEM, and both communities are mourning.
The event also featured two Democratic politicians, Colorado Congressman Jason Crow and Senator Michael Bennet. Moms Demand Action, a group that advocates for gun control legislation, also had representatives at the event.
STEM students who came to the event said they were frustrated to hear politicians speak, and grew angry as the conversation turned to gun control and policy. A large group stormed out of the event in protest. They demanded an opportunity to speak and were upset they weren’t given the chance earlier.
Many STEM students later returned to the Highlands Ranch High School gymnasium and refocused the event back to the victims of the shooting.
“What has happened at STEM is awful, but it’s not a statistic,” one student told the crowd. “We can’t be used [as] a reason for gun control, we are people, not a statement.”
The crowd cheered loudly in response.
“This was not a vigil. This was purely a political stunt. This is not what we wanted for Kendrick,” said another student.
“We didn’t want Kendrick to be a prop. We wanted Kendrick to be mourned, we wanted all of you to join us in that mourning, but that was not allowed here.”
When students did get a chance to talk about the victims, they shared stories about Castillo.
“We are mourning the loss of our best friend, our brother, Kendrick Castillo,” one student said. “He’s somebody that cared for everybody, somebody who was always there, that could fix any problem. Whether that was with his hammer, or with his words, he was there. He was somebody we all loved, and somebody that was so kind that he was willing to sacrifice his own life for ours. And we are forever grateful.”
One student, who said he was a close friend of Castillo’s, described his classmate as compassionate, charismatic, and kind.
“Yesterday I found out that Kendrick’s senior quote was, ‘The most difficult roads lead to the most beautiful destinations. The best is yet to come.’ At the time I couldn’t help but imagine all the beautiful destinations he wouldn’t be able to enjoy. Now I realize this is our difficult road, and I know that he is going to those places with all of us, because we are going to carry him in our hearts forever.”
The group that helped organize the event, Brady, released the following statement by email Wednesday night:
“Brady has always been and always will be supportive of individuals and communities who have experienced the horrors of gun violence. Our deepest condolences are with the STEM School students, faculty, and families. All efforts should be focused on providing them support in this time of crisis. The event at Highlands Ranch High School was planned to be responsive to the broader community, who have been deeply impacted by this event, and show solidarity with the STEM School students, teachers, and parents. We are here to lift up the voices of victims and survivors. Members of the community, faith leaders, students, teachers, youth activists, and elected officials - including Sen. Michael Bennett and Rep. Jason Crow - were invited to join this vigil honoring the STEM School community. 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."
Crow released a statement on Thursday afternoon:
"It is my job to show up and support my community during times of tragedy. I grieve for what Highlands Ranch and our families have been through. The last few days I have been asked the same question over and over again: what are you doing to stop this from happening? It is my job to take tough questions and offer real solutions. Bottomline, everyone needs to listen to those most impacted by this violence to learn how we can move forward, and that begins with listening to the students of STEM School.”
Bennet's statement reads:
"Last night should have been about Kendrick Castillo and the STEM School students. They are our focus and the event should have been set up to ensure their voices were fully heard."
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