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Why STEM School Students Protested A Vigil Meant For Them

STEM students
Michael de Yoanna
STEM students who left the vigil at Highlands Ranch High School hold their own outside the school Wednesday night.

As parents and students entered the school gym, several said they came to show support for the victims of the STEM school shooting as well as to build a sense of community.

Amy Wadlington, a mom from Castle Rock, said she came to the event at Highlands Ranch High School, near the school where Tuesday's tragic shooting took place, "to support the community and to show a united front for my daughter."

Wadlington came "to show her that we're not going to be stopped by fear. I hope that she gets to see that she can rely on her community for support and that there's always hope."

The event was billed as an "interfaith memorial vigil in support of the victims and survivors" of the STEM School Highlands Ranch shooting that took the life of one student and left eight others injured. The hosts were listed as Team ENOUGH, a student-led initiative of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, a nonprofit that advocates for gun control.

The vigil began with a hush as a student choir sang The Beatles' "Let It Be." Then came speakers, including students. The crowd heard from Team ENOUGH and from U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, who is running for president, and Congressman Jason Crow of the 6th District.

Both Democrats had arrived from a private vigil at St. Andrew United Methodist Church said to be solemn and thoughtful. Both praised and remembered Kendrick Castillo, the 18-year-old STEM school student who gave his life during the shooting to save others. Both spoke about gun control.

All received applause.

As the line-up of speakers continued, a young voice echoed from the front of the gym: "Let STEM students speak!"

An event organizer at the microphone said that organizers were unable to reach STEM students prior to the event.

"We're here! We're here!" pockets of STEM students called from the bleachers.

The organizer asked those students to go into the hall outside the gym to plan a way for them to speak, but a short while later dozens of students were outside in the cold rain chanting: "We are STEM! We are STEM!"

Dozens more students joined them in the rain. Some said they went outside because they felt they weren't being heard.

"I'm not going to stand by and let them politicize us," one student shouted.

They then held their own vigil, lighting their mobile phones and lifting them above their heads. They said they were there for Castillo and named the others who were injured in the shooting. Some hugged and cried. Others said they came to grieve away from the national and local TV cameras that lined the walls of the gym and hovered above the bleachers.

Eventually, STEM students returned to the gym and spoke, trading the microphone, but only after many people had already filtered out and left in the confusion.

Statements about the event have followed, including from Bennet's office.

"Last night should have been about Kendrick Castillo and the STEM School students," a spokesperson from his office told KUNC in a written statement. "They are our focus and the event should have been set up to ensure their voices were fully heard."

A written statement to KUNC from Crow said:

"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."

The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence issued an apology:

"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."

KUNC has heard from many people in the community following initial reports. A theme in those comments is that the lesson from the events at Highlands Ranch High School is that adults need to find better ways to listen to students after traumatic events. Many noted the vigil took place just miles away from another vigil weeks ago — the one for the 20th anniversary of the Columbine massacre.

At the end of the night, STEM students were still chanting. This time they called, "Mental health! Mental health! Mental health!"

As investigative reporter for KUNC, I take tips from our audience and, well, investigate them. I strive to go beyond the obvious, to reveal new facts, to go in-depth and to bring new perspectives and personalities to light.
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