Survivors of the shooting at the charter school in Colorado that killed one student and injured eight others stormed out of a community vigil Wednesday, calling it a "political stunt."
The event, organized by Team Enough — the student-led initiative of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence — was intended to be an interfaith vigil to honor the STEM School Highlands Ranch shooting survivors and 18-year-old Kendrick Castillo, who died Tuesday after trying to stop one of the shooters.
Hundreds of grieving students, parents, and community members packed the Highlands Ranch school's gym, but their anger and frustration became apparent after none of the STEM students themselves had a chance to speak about Castillo at the vigil.
Instead, several speakers — including Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Michael Bennet, Democratic Rep. Jason Crow, and a Moms Demand Action volunteer, Laura Reeves — addressed the need for gun control legislation.
"[Our kids] have a job to do when they come to school," Bennet told the crowd. "Their job is not to fix American’s broken gun laws. Their job is not, as Kendrick so selflessly did yesterday, give up their own life to save their classmates' lives or their teachers' lives. That's not their job. They’re relying on the rest of us to do our job so they can do their job."
"Let STEM kids speak," an attendee shouted during the vigil as some students began walking out in protest.
However, an organizer of the event told the crowd that they hadn't been able to connect with any STEM students to have them speak at the vigil.
"You never asked," some students said in response, prompting an exodus of students and parents, according to an eyewitness who attended the vigil but wished to remain anonymous.
One organizer blamed the media for sending attendees outside, but students later said that was false and that they had chosen to leave themselves.
The protesting students then gathered in the high school hallway, chanting, "Mental health," "STEM strong," and "Fuck the media," the eyewitness told BuzzFeed News on Thursday.
"Everyone was upset there was no time to honor Kendrick," one eyewitness said, adding that students and parents appeared to be frustrated at the news media for taking photos of people crying.
"It's just about votes and something that doesn't have anything to do with anything," a school parent, Chris Barrette, told KRDO-TV. "It's about the victims, our faculty, and the first responders, the horror that our students went through just yesterday."
Several students who walked out of the gym also gathered outside the high school and held their own impromptu vigil in the rain, pointing their illuminated cellphones toward the sky.
Many students then returned to the gym and held a moment of silence for Castillo and the shooting survivors. Several of them took the microphone to express their frustrations with the organized event and to speak about Castillo.
"This was not a vigil," one student said in his speech. "This was purely a political stunt. This is not what we wanted for Kendrick. 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. We all walked out. We were not kicked out, despite what you have heard. And we're back now to tell you that we love Kendrick and we love all of the survivors."
One of Castillo's classmates broke down as she remembered her friend.
"I came here for my close friend Kendrick," she said. "I just wanted to talk about him a little bit because everybody's been sitting here talking about gun violence and avoiding the fact that he died."
In a statement following the vigil, the Brady group apologized, saying that organizers 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."
A spokesperson for Bennet said in a statement that the vigil "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," the statement added.
A representative for Crow did not return a request for comment.
Stephanie Baer contributed reporting to this story.