Letter to the community from a Highlands Ranch High vigil organizer

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Editor's note: The following letter was written by Team ENOUGH Colorado sponsor Emily Muellenberg, who said it was delivered last week to the school board, STEM School Highlands Ranch, event speakers, the principal of Highlands Ranch High, the director of security for DCSD and the student organizers in the spirit of restoration. Muellenberg is one of the vigil organizers.

An open letter to the Highlands Ranch Community:

I would like to begin by first profoundly apologizing to anyone who was upset by the vigil at Highlands Ranch High School last night. It was of course as far from our intent as could be. I also want to take a moment to clarify a few points that might help people process, listen, reflect, and heal. In the raw moments of tragedy, we all respond so differently, and we all need so many different things, myself included, evidenced by this project and this letter. I hope this provides something for you.

First, it should be made clear that the event was not a Highlands Ranch High School sponsored event. The gym was theirs, some of us on the organizing team are Falcons, but that is the extent of the school's involvement.  As members of Team ENOUGH Colorado and the Highlands Ranch community, we wanted to offer our organization as a resource to host an event that could bring the community together. Team ENOUGH is a national organization that is the student arm of Brady, a gun violence prevention non-profit organization ...  (Brady) frequently reaches out to communities impacted by gun violence because it has resources and tools on survivorship, grief, and community building. This was the purpose of our involvement here, and not political, as Brady strives for bipartisan solution-seeking.

In regards to the lack of STEM students and families represented on the panel, again, we are deeply sorry.  We spent the better part of our planning time reaching out to as many students and families with whom we had connections.  Despite those efforts, we were unable to confirm any STEM student speakers by the start of the vigil. And we understood. Of course we couldn't reach everyone, clearly there were many who were passionate about speaking, and we were glad they had that opportunity in the end.  But we wanted to also be respectful of their space and their time as a smaller community to heal privately and together if those were their wishes, and so we did not press the issue. For those who spoke up, I am in awe of your strength, and I am proud of you for asking for what you needed in that moment. I am sorry we couldn't do better, but your resilience and your passion will help fuel your healing.  Your honoring of Kendrick Castillo was powerful, and we thank you for that. We sincerely hope that by the end there was some chance to release and begin to heal for many of you. Once again, it is students who are showing us the way, and we honor you with space, love, remembrance, and action.

A political tone to the event was also certainly not the intent, and we invited all of our speakers because of experiences they have had that might bring comfort to parts of the audience, that were wholly intended to be apolitical. We did feel it was important to invite Senator Bennet and Representative Crow to address their constituents and offer condolence and support and we appreciate their accepting our invitation.  We did also extend an invitation to Senator Gardner and the Colorado State Legislative delegation as well. Many people over the last twenty years in Colorado, and specifically the last two weeks, have begun to respond to their own grief and frustration over these events in myriad ways.  For many scared and angry parents, teachers, and students, a healing and empowering way to respond is to engage in gun violence prevention efforts. For many, it's not a topic that they see as political, but rather as community-based solutions seeking. Many in our audience needed to hear that there might be hope for change in this culture for their own healing, but we understand that for others any feeling that a political message was being imparted felt upsetting and not appropriately sensitive, particularly in the raw moments following the tragedy we faced.  

As for the students who organized the event:  They are exceptional. They threw themselves into this project as a way to give something we thought was much needed to this community, and I believe that given the attendance size, they were right; this was a needed event.

No one has practice organizing a vigil, but they do have experience and connections with many gun violence survivors from around the country, including friends who were at MSD High School in Parkland, Florida. They acted with the best of intent and purest of heart and tried to follow best practices for a community response with adults helping guide them along the way. I am proud of them every day, and they confirm my purpose as an educator.

The event that took place was not what we anticipated.  But I will learn from what didn't go right, and I will choose to focus on all of the good that came out Wednesday night, and I will continue that focus as we move forward together.  As a community we all have such different needs. Some needed STEM voices, some needed leaders, some needed solutions, some needed prayer, and some just needed to sit in a space together. We sincerely hope that despite the brief upheaval, everyone can find something they needed that they did indeed take away from the event. The community connected, students from all over were given a voice, and we all witnessed the desperate need for unity and love and respect in the wake of such horror and sadness.  A special thank you to our wonderful faith leaders who attended and did what they could to bring us all back together brilliantly and respectfully. I know that all of us, teachers, families, the district, our government, and organization will continue to support the students and staff of STEM in all the ways we know how. You are our friends, our neighbors, our brothers and sisters, our cousins, our colleagues, and our community. We love you.

With gratitude,

Emily Muellenberg

Team ENOUGH Colorado Sponsor

Douglas County School District teacher

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