HIGHLANDS RANCH, Colorado — STEM School junior Maximus was hiding behind a row of filing cabinets in his chemistry class reflecting on his life Tuesday when two students opened fire inside his school, killing one classmate and injuring eight others.
Thirty hours later the Colorado teen walked into a vigil in support of the survivors and 18-year-old Kendrick Castillo, who died trying to stop one of the shooters, and was immediately handed a button that said "End gun violence."
Footage of what happened next has since gone viral as hundreds of grieving STEM students, parents, and community members stormed out of the event in protest, calling it a "political stunt" after politicians and other speakers spoke about the need for stronger gun control laws.
"I don't know why they thought that would be appropriate to do," said 16-year-old Maximus, who did not want to give his last name. "There's a time to have that discussion. ... That's something that we need to address as a society, but the day after a child dies at a vigil for that child is not one to do it."
In the aftermath of the shooting, BuzzFeed News spoke to seven STEM students who walked out of the vigil about their reaction to it, and what they want to see come out of their school's tragedy. The students, still in mourning, said they want to see change to prevent another senseless attack but aren't ready to join the debate. They don't want to be used as "props" in politicians' agendas and, above all, they just want to remember Kendrick Castillo.
"We're not like other victims where we want to just immediately go out and start campaigning," said a STEM senior and friend of Castillo's who wanted to remain anonymous. "We just want to mourn Kendrick and share his life and share his sacrifice with the rest of the world."
Students who witnessed the shooting said Castillo was the first of several classmates who ran toward one of the gunmen to disarm him as he opened fire at the K-12 charter school, saving classmates' lives.
"They are truly courageous and I hope that everybody recognizes them as such," said another STEM senior and friend who wanted to remain anonymous.
Castillo's friends weren't surprised by his heroism. They described him as a mentor and a leader who had an ability to develop friendships with just about anyone and someone they could always count on.
Castillo was an award-winning member of the school's robotics team and recently helped organize the senior barbecue. He loved cars — Jeeps, especially — and was planning a cars and robots show for the school on Saturday. (The event was canceled.)
"He wanted that to be another event that brought people together," said STEM senior Adam Parol, who bonded with Castillo over their love for the outdoors.
Lucy Sarkissian didn't know Castillo, but the 14-year-old wanted to go to the vigil at Highlands Ranch High School Wednesday night to "commemorate the boy who saved my life."
The eighth-grader was in psychology class when the shooting began. As the sound of gun shots rang outside her classroom door, Sarkissian frantically sent text messages to her family and friends that if she never saw them again she wanted them to know she loved them.
But for Sarkissian and others who survived the shooting, the vigil only reminded them of their trauma.
As organizers of the event opened up more seating to make room for STEM students, the sound of the wooden bleachers crashing into place stirred up memories of the horror they had just endured.
"That sounded very similar to the gunshots that a lot of us heard," Sarkissian said as her eyes watered and voice began to shake. "We just all grabbed onto each other and we just held onto each other because we were afraid."
In their speeches, Democratic Rep. Jason Crow, who represents the area, presidential hopeful Sen. Michael Bennet, and Moms Demand Action volunteer Laura Reeves spoke about the need for better gun control legislation and how Castillo shouldn't have had to sacrifice himself to save others.
Parol said it bothered him to see Castillo's name evoked to promote political change.
"Whenever we heard his name it wasn’t about what Kendrick did, it was that in Kendrick’s name we are going to do this," Parol said. "None of them knew Kendrick. To say that they were doing something in his name is disingenuous."
When students walked out of the school's gym they did so with the intention to speak, but also to make a statement. Still, Parol said STEM students are not, in general, politically active.
"The statement we made was in defiance of being used as political props," he said. "STEM isn’t about politics. We’re about approaching solutions critically ... and helping each other out."
STEM is a public charter school that serves more than 1,800 students and offers a curriculum based in, as its name suggests, science, technology, engineering, and math. Students build robots and computer programs and compete in state technology competitions.
"STEM is definitely a nerd school," one senior said.
While most declined to discuss their political views, the students said they weren't convinced better gun control laws would have prevented the shooting at their school.
Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock said that the shooters, an 18-year-old and a juvenile, "got deep inside the school" and began shooting classmates at separate locations. At least two handguns were used in the attack that the teens were not legally allowed to purchase or possess.
Authorities have not said how the suspects got a hold of the guns, but local outlets have reported they stole the firearms from a parent. Neither suspect was on law enforcement's radar prior to the attack.
"I understand calling for gun control but like these were handguns — these aren’t AR-15s these kids are carrying," said an 18-year-old student who wished to remain anonymous. "There’s a law in Colorado you can’t buy a handgun unless you’re 21 — like how can you prevent that?"
Authorities have not divulged a possible motive for the attack, but students said they believed mental health may have been a factor and that the solutions should include additional psychological resources and awareness.
"People are afraid to say 'I’m not OK I need help,'" Sarkissian said. "We need to figure out how do we make it OK for students to not be OK and to help people who are struggling."
If anything, friends of Castillo said they hope people live the way he did.
"Be passionate, be leaders, be empathetic," Parol said. "I’m sure there is some semblance of consensus that if we all acted like Kendrick these things would be far less likely to happen."
Several days after the attack, students are still grappling with what happened.
Despite being just a few miles from Columbine High School, where 13 people were killed by two students 20 years ago, and a recent manhunt for a woman who was "infatuated" with the Columbine massacre made threats against schools in the area, STEM students said they never expected their campus would be the next American school to cope with a shooting.
"That’s the environment we were raised in," Maximus said. "So yeah, I did worry about that, but I didn't think it was going to happen to us until it did."
"I think it traumatized almost all of us," he added.
If there's anything positive to come from the shooting, it's that the STEM community has become closer and more unified in their grief. And for now, that's what they're focused on.
"Us being close as a school, that's not going to solve gun violence in America, but that's what's going to help heal STEM and that's what we need to focus on right now," Maximus said. "We’ll decide what we need to do later."