Des Moines Latino community discusses how to increase school safety and student resources
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People filed into the old Franklin Junior High School gym in Des Moines Friday night. Once all the chairs were taken, more people stood in the back and on the sides of the room.
A panel of speakers sat at the front of the room: Maria Alonzo-Diaz, a recently-elected Des Moines School Board member, and city council members Linda Westergaard and Connie Boesen. Both Westergaard and Boesen wore translation devices in their ears, since the whole meeting would be conducted in Spanish.
Knock and Drop Iowa, a culturally specific food pantry and Latino advocacy organization, arranged for the meeting after a 15-year-old was shot and killed on East High School's campus last Monday.
"In the twenty-seven years since I've been [in Des Moines], this is one of the first times I've seen our community come together like this," Zuli Garcia, founder of Knock and Drop Iowa, said.
The meeting was arranged as a conversation, one where community members could ask the panelists questions. They focused on school safety, student resources and the strength of the community.
After panel introductions, one father stood up and started the conversation. He asked the panel about school resource officers (SROs), which ended up being a 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'd be better able to answer the father's question.
The person in the front row was Endí Montalvo-Martinez. Now an Iowa State University student, the East High School graduate helped lead the initiative to end SROs in the Des Moines School District last year. He and another student won the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Iowa Robert Mannheimer Youth Advocacy Award for their work.
Montalvo-Martinez explained removing SROs from the schools allowed for about $1.5 million to be redistributed to other school programs like counseling and mentorships.
"I think that's a very valid question," Montalvo-Martinez told the father. "I think it's also important to remember this wasn't something that was well-communicated with our community. And I think that's on the part of the schools that partook in this initiative."
He added another reason why he felt it was important to redistribute funding from SROs to other resources was because many students had negative experiences with the officers, especially students of color. Studies have shown Black and Hispanic students are disproportionately disciplined in U.S. schools.
Although most attendees respected others' opinions, many parents at the meeting wanted police back in the schools. Mothers Guadalupe Suarez and Maria Uribe stood in a corner of the gym collecting signatures for a petition asking for SROs back into the school.
Suarez criticized what she felt was a lack of concern for Latino communities from 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're meeting to bring safety to our kids in the schools."
Safety was a primary concern for many at the meeting, but some felt the discussion of student safety couldn't be whole without mentioning the lack of resources they felt were offered in public schools.
We are Latinos, but we also have a voice and a vote...That's why we're meeting to bring safety to our kids in the schools.
Veronica Hernandez has a daughter attending North High School. She told the panel how her daughter needed therapy, and even though she was in contact with the school, she realized there wasn't 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 very many services in Des Moines public schools," she said in Spanish.
Des Moines Public Schools offers English Language Learner services for 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 more than 50 languages. More than 100 languages are spoken in the district.
Nela Blanco works for the language services department for Des Moines Public Schools and has for 16 years. She has worked with students of all ages. She said she has seen a big difference in the schools this past year without SROs.
"In place of the police, we have, in Roosevelt [High School], eight people that are hall monitors and work on restorative justice," she said in Spanish. "Walking in the schools, I have noticed the difference is that they are connecting with your students. They are talking with your students...they're connecting with them."
"I've heard and seen them cry together, laugh together," Blanco continued. "They are making such a difference. We need these people."
The attendees and the panelists agreed they would not come to a definitive solution to the challenges they and their families are facing in one night. School Board member Alonzo-Diaz recognized there was still work to do.
"Education was the reason why I think many of us came to this country. I think education definitely starts in our home. The responsibility we have to resolve the issue of security and..security isn’t the only problem we have. We have a lot to work on," she said in Spanish.
East High School student Marisol Herrera, 16, attended the meeting. For most of it, she rested her head on her mother's shoulder until she felt comfortable to speak. She rose her hand and a volunteer brought over a microphone so she could address the audience.
Her voice wavered as she admitted she would start crying. She said both sides of the discussion were valid—Montalvo-Martinez's and the parents who wanted SROs back.
"As a student, I feel like this can go many ways, it doesn't only have to be just like the police and just like having money put into new stadiums and everything, but I feel like it can go so many ways. It doesn't have to be one certain option..." Herrera lost her ability to speak as she wipes tears away from her red-rimmed eyes.
East High graduate Montalvo-Martinez urged attendees: "I hope we can help our students and community alleviate violence and find a future where we don’t need police, don’t have violence and have the necessary resources we need to move forward.”
Other Latino leaders have also been vocal in mourning the loss of a young life from their community. One 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 before the community meeting.
"We must recognize that the root cause of violence is inequity. And communities like ours have been impacted by inequity and trauma for generations," Maria Corona, executive director of the Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said.
Hispanic people and/or Latinos make up the largest minority population in the city at just under 14 percent. Twenty-nine percent of the Des Moines Public School district identifies as Hispanic, and had a graduation rate of 69.9 percent in 2021. That's compared to a 78.9 percent graduation rate for students who identify as white.
According to state data, the median income of Latino households in 2019 was $48,346, while the median household income for the whole state was $61,691. It also found the average age of Latinos in Iowa is about 15 years younger than the rest of Iowa's average population.
Near the end of the meeting at Franklin Junior High School on Friday night, 9-year-old Gabriela "Gabi" Mayorga (Hernandez's daughter), offered the crowd some advice before heading out to grab the provided dinner of tostadas de pollo o ceviche: when there's a bully, believe in yourself and advocate for yourself.