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By Kassidy Arena, Iowa Public Radio

Along with the school and police quick response to the shooting, Latino service providers were operating their own response systems after a 15-year-old Latino boy was shot and killed on a Des Moines school campus earlier this month.

Dawn Martinez Oropeza, the executive director of Al Èxito, said she immediately reached out to students within the organization’s programming to make sure they and their families were okay. Al Èxito provides after school programming for Latino students and other services for Latino communities. Overall, its goal is to advance Iowa’s prosperity.

Since the shooting, Martinez Oropeza said the organization has pivoted quickly to focus on what students need to heal and to make sure this doesn’t happen again.

“There’s a change. There’s a change in those kids and I can’t really pinpoint it right now,” she said.

The after school program Movimiento was canceled that Monday and didn’t reconvene until last week. Many of the program’s students are from East High School.

“Hugging those kids and seeing them was just so…it just felt so much like I could breathe,” she explained. She said she saw her own two sons reflected in the students who came together to support one another.

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Martinez Oropeza said programs that support Latino students especially need more financial backing to make sure students stay in school and away from violence and gang activity.

This has nothing to do with communities of color. This has to do with youth that needs support from the community.

Joe Enriquez Henry, LULAC

The Iowa Department of Education reported the dropout rate for Latino students in the 2020-2021 school year was close to 6 percent, compared to the white student dropout rate at just under 5 percent. Both are increases from the year before.

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“There’s so many big issues happening, that are fundamental and foundational, that go beyond the shooting. And this is a symptom of all the foundational things,” she said.

Some of the youth leaders within Al Èxito have created recommendations for the Des Moines School District (DMPS) and the Iowa Department of Education in the past, but as far as Martinez Oropeza can tell, those recommendations have not yet been implemented.

Out of the six teens who were charged for the shooting, DMPS released two were enrolled at the district, one was not enrolled and two were formerly enrolled. The district did not have permission to release information for the last one.

“I want to know what was happening, who was reaching out to those kids. Like, those kids should have been captured. And on one hand, it really 100 percent comes down Des Moines Public Schools isn’t funded enough,” Martinez Oropeza said.

The Des Moines chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) agrees. Joe Enriquez Henry, who also acts as LULAC’s state political director, said more needs to be done to reach out to Latino and Spanish-speaking families directly.

“The dilemma that we have right now is accessing information to provide parents, to provide our youth, for our different nonprofit groups such as LULAC, to really know what’s going on within Des Moines schools,” Henry said. “This has nothing to do with communities of color. This has to do with youth that needs support from the community.”

Des Moines Public Schools has said it will revamp its safety protocol by adding more security presence and outward-facing cameras, but Henry said that’s not enough.

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“Providing security at the school is fine. But the long term security is providing support to help the youth understand what type of programs exist and how they can be part of those programs,” he said.

DMPS does offer translation 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. The district reported there are more than 100 languages spoken in the district.

But Henry, and other Latino families, have pointed out the problem is accessing those services and understanding how the services can be used.

“What we need, and we’ve been needing this for over a decade now, is for a school district here in Des Moines to be very aggressive, to be proactive, to reach out to families. Not just to wait for appointments to be made at the schools to discuss what programs exist, but for staff and for teachers to go to households to meet with families,” Henry explained. But in order to do so properly, he added, there needs to be more financial support for the schools.

Des Moines Public Schools will offer its first roundtable discussion for community members at East High School the week of April 25th. Pre-registration is required, and in its newsletter, the district said it would release those details as the date gets closer.

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