People went to the old gymnasium at Franklin Junior High School in Des Moines on Friday night. After all the chairs were taken, other people were standing at the back and sides of the room.
A group of speakers sat at the front of the room: newly elected Des Moines School Board member Maria Alonzo-Diaz, and City Council members Linda Westergaard and Connie Boesen. Westergaard and Boesen both wore translation devices in their ears, since the entire meeting would be in Spanish.
Knock and Drop Iowa, a culturally specific food pantry and Latino advocacy organization, organized the reunion after a 15-year-old was fatally shot on the campus of East High School last Monday.
“In the seven years since I have been [in Des Moines]this is one of the first times I’ve seen our community come together like this,” said Zuli Garcia, founder of Knock and Drop Iowa.
The meeting was organized as a conversation, a conversation where members of the community could pose questions to the panelists. They focused on school safety, student resources and community strength.
After the panel presentations, a father stood up and started the conversation. He asked the panel questions about School Resource Officers (SROs), who ended up being the focus of the meeting.
School board member Alonzo-Diaz asked a person sitting in the front row if he could join the panel, as he would be better able to answer the father’s question.
The person in the front row was Endí Montalvo-Martinez. Now a student at Iowa State University, the East High School grad helped lead the initiative to end ORS in the Des Moines school district last year. He and another student won the Robert Mannheimer Youth Advocacy Award from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Iowa for their work.
Montalvo-Martinez explained that removing ORS from schools redistributed about $1.5 million to other school programs like counseling and mentoring.
“I think that’s a very valid question,” Montalvo-Martinez told the father. “I think it’s also important to remember that this was not something that was communicated well with our community. And I think it was from the schools that were involved in this initiative.”
He added that another reason he felt it was important to redistribute ORS funding to other resources was that many students had negative experiences with officers, especially students of color. Studies have shown that black and Hispanic students are disproportionately disciplined in American schools.
Although most participants respected the opinions of others, many parents present at the meeting wanted the police back in the schools. Mothers Guadalupe Suarez and Maria Uribe stood in a corner of the gymnasium collecting signatures for a petition calling for the return of ORS to the school.
Suarez criticized what she saw as a lack of interest in Latin American communities by government agencies and the governor.
“We are Latinos, but we also have a voice and a vote,” she said in Spanish. “And that’s why we come together to bring safety to our children in schools.”
Safety was a top concern for many at the meeting, but some felt the discussion of student safety could not be complete without mentioning the lack of resources they felt were available in public schools.
We are Latinos, but we also have a voice and a vote… That’s why we come together to bring safety to our children in schools.
Guadalupe Suarez, mother
Veronica Hernandez has a daughter who attends North High School. She told the panel that her daughter needed therapy, and although she was in touch with the school, she realized there was not much they could do for her daughter.
“I don’t have a lot of information about the schools. Listening to the kids, I realized we don’t have a lot of services in the public schools in Des Moines,” she said in Spanish.
Des Moines Public Schools provides English language learning services to more than 6,800 students with 160 teachers and staff. It also offers counseling in all of its schools and a family resource guide in over 50 languages. Over 100 languages are spoken in the neighborhood.
Nela Blanco has worked for the Des Moines Public Schools Language Services Department for 16 years. She has worked with students of all ages. She said she saw a big difference in schools last year without ORS.
“In place of the police, we have, at Roosevelt [High School], eight people who are ward monitors and work on restorative justice,” she said in Spanish. “Walking through schools, I noticed the difference is that they connect with your students. They talk with your students…they connect with them.”
“I heard and saw them crying together, laughing together,” Blanco continued. “They make such a difference. We need those people.”
Participants and panelists agreed that they would not reach a definitive solution to the challenges they and their families face overnight. Alonzo-Diaz, a school board member, acknowledged there was still work to be done.
“Education is the reason why I think a lot of us came to this country. I think education definitely starts at home. The responsibility we have to solve the problem of safety and security is not the only problem we have. We have a lot of work to do,” she said in Spanish.
Marisol Herrera, 16, a student at East High School, attended the meeting. Most of the time, she rested her head on her mother’s shoulder until she felt comfortable talking. She raised her hand and a volunteer brought a microphone so she could address the audience.
Her voice wavered as she admitted she was going to start crying. She said both sides of the discussion were valid — Montalvo-Martinez and parents who wanted ORS back.
“As a student I feel like it can go a number of ways, it’s not enough just to be like the police and like having money invested in new stadiums and stuff, but I have feels like it can go so many ways. doesn’t have to be a certain option…” Herrera lost her ability to speak as she wiped tears from her red-rimmed eyes.
East Montalvo-Martinez graduate urged participants: “I hope we can help our students and our community to alleviate violence and find a future where we don’t need police, where we don’t have violence and where we have the resources needed to move forward.”
Other Latino leaders also expressed their mourning for the loss of a young life from their community. A Des Moines chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) held a press conference with many other advocacy organizations earlier in the day ahead of the community meeting.
“We must recognize that the root cause of violence is inequality. And communities like ours have been impacted by inequality and trauma for generations,” said Maria Corona, executive director of the Iowa Coalition. against domestic violence.
Hispanics and/or Latinos make up the largest minority population in the city at just under 14%. Twenty-nine percent of the Des Moines Public School District identify as Hispanic and had a 69.9 percent graduation rate in 2021. This is compared to a 78.9 percent graduation rate for students who identify as white.
According to state data, the median income for Latino households in 2019 was $48,346, while the median household income for the entire state was $61,691. He also found that the average age of Latinos in Iowa is about 15 years younger than the rest of Iowa’s average population.
Towards the end of the meeting at Franklin Junior High School on Friday night, 9-year-old Gabriela “Gabi” Mayorga (Hernandez’s daughter) offered some advice to the crowd before heading out to grab the provided dinner from pollo tostadas or ceviche: When there is a bully, believe in yourself and stand up for yourself.