On Tuesday, mere days before students were set to don caps and gowns to walk across their graduation stage, two students opened fire at STEM Highlands Ranch High School in Denver, Colorado, injuring eight and killing one — Kendrick Castillo, 18.
In the days that followed, the students endured what felt like to many as an insult heaped upon injury, as their earnest desire to pay their respects to Castillo were hijacked by political opportunism.
Two lawmakers — Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-CO) and Rep. Jason Crow (D-CCO) — were among those invited to a Wednesday night vigil honoring Castillo, organized by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, a gun policy advocacy group.
But midway through the event, it became increasingly clear to the student body and their families that this vigil was not going to be the event they’d imagined, in which a community came together to offer one another their support and honor the memory of their absent friend. Rather, the event very palpably shifted in tone, leaving parents and students aggrieved that they’d ended up participating in what amounted to a political stunt.
According to reports, things finally hit a boiling point when Laura Reeves, a volunteer from Moms Demand Action, took to the podium.
“Her whole speech was about politics, not about Kendrick,” a 17-year-old STEM senior told the Denver Post. “She painted this really dystopian life with bullets on every corner –that’s not how it is here in Highlands Ranch.”
Soon chants of “Let STEM kids speak!” started to ring out from the crowd, followed shortly after by students and parents walking out en masse. A large group of those disgruntled by the goings on inside assembled in the parking lot, cursing at the media and chanting protests.
“Don’t use Kendrick’s name for political reasons!” a student outside the vigil was heard shouting, according to the Highland Ranch Herald.
Eventually a student led the group back in the gymnasium, to commandeer the microphone and take back the vigil.
“We wanted Kendrick to be mourned. We wanted all of you to join us in that mourning. But that was not allowed here. We’re back now to tell you we love Kendrick and we love all of the survivors,” the student said.
The Brady Foundation, the parent organization of Team Enough — a youth-led initiative against gun violence — which organized the vigil, told ThinkProgress that they regretted the way the students who put the event together ended up feeling so distraught over the way things went down.
“We just ache with the fact that we maybe hurt the STEM community. This whole thing came from the love and passion from my kids who wanted to help this community,” said Emily Muellenberg, a teacher sponsor for the Colorado branch of Team Enough.
In a public statement, the Brady Foundation said, “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.”
The fumbled effort at staging a vigil seemed to be a misbegotten attempt at “giving a voice to the voiceless” — an earnest and well-meaning approach of advocacy, that can often backfire by marginalizing the community for whom the effort is undertaken. Ironically enough, those deemed to be “voiceless” can commonly end up going unheard by those trying to help.
“I think I speak for STEM when I say we do thank Highlands Ranch High School for hosting this,” STEM School senior Logan Griffith told the Herald. “However, this was for Kendrick Castillo. Not for our senator, not for anyone else.”
In the time since the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, we’ve seen the power in outspoken students taking the lead in campaigning for an end to gun violence based on their emotional stake in the issue, and their ability to translate their ideas across social media. But in Highlands Ranch, the organizers who attempted to tap into that wellspring of activist energy failed to heed one of the most important lessons from the Parkland shooting: The students and survivors want to take back the thing that the shooting stole in the first place — control over how they process their loss, make sense of the tragedy, and live through it.
“What has happened at STEM is awful, but it’s not a statistic,” one student said. “We can’t be used for a reason for gun control. We are people, not a statement.”
In a world where politicians can observe the energy of a hashtag campaign or a viral videos — and how quickly it can lead to nationwide mobilization, it’s easy to see how someone observing the initiative behind such endeavors from a distance can get ahead of themselves.
While gun violence is a pervasive problem, the students of Highland Ranch sent a powerful reminder that they’re not actually in a rush to become political activists, and that they actually aspired to graduate with their innocence still intact.