An East High School student walks into the school, passing by Joe Henry, with LULAC, on Wednesday, March 23, 2022, in Des Moines. Henry holds a poster of Maribel Valdez Gonzalez, a nationally known educational consultant and activist for educational justice. Meg McLaughlin/The Register
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By Samantha Hernandez and Andrea May Sahouri, Des Moines Register

East High School students were not alone Wednesday as they returned to class for the first time following a deadly drive-by shooting earlier this month.

Under a blanket of cold and wet clouds, community members, local leaders and school board members lined the school’s main entrance with posters, snacks and words of encouragement to greet students. They exchanged high fives and elbow bumps.

“We’ve missed you!”

“Welcome back!”

“You are loved!”

East High School Spanish teacher Ruby Herrera helped organize the welcome back rally.

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“It feels good to be back and be received with such energy,” Herrera said.

Inside the school, hearts decorated the hallways with positive messages.

Some students were subdued going into school while others chatted loudly with their friends outside before the first bell rang. Several students said they were ready to return to school, even if they had lingering concerns about their safety — especially outside the school’s physical walls.

Tenth-grade student Eduardo Ceballos felt it was important to come back and finish the year. However, he has concerns about school safety and safety in the neighborhood. He referenced several area shootings that have occurred in recent weeks.

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“If you’re inside the school, where it’s safe, I think you should be good …You don’t know if it’s safe here or not around the community. I mean, a lot of stuff has happened around the community,” Ceballos said.

Student Angelica Guzman knew Jose Lopez-Perez, 15, who was shot and killed outside the school March 7, from middle school club activities but had lost touch with him over time.

After the shooting, a friend showed her a video of Lopez-Perez dancing and she made the connection.

Her hope for East and other schools going forward is officials will “have better protection for their students and mental health services.”

Senior Deja Pearson said she was nervous about returning to school.

“I don’t know what the feeling is going to be like when I walk in. What the atmosphere will be like,” Pearson said.

East High School senior Leslie Marquez speaks to the media Wednesday, March 23, 2022, in Des Moines.
Meg McLaughlin/The Register

Getting East High School ready for students to return was a coordinated effort following the shooting death of Lopez-Perez. Also injured were East High School students Kemery Ortega, 18, and Jessica Lopez, 16.

Six people have been charged with Lopez-Perez’s death, and Ortega and Lopez’s shootings.

The school had been closed for more than two weeks following the cancellation of classes and spring break.

District and East administrators laid out how students and staff will see more members of the district’s safety team and Des Moines Police officers at all Des Moines high schools, during an early morning news conference Wednesday. Officials have worked on increasing security including purchasing more cameras and reviewing safety procedures across the school district.

White Public Safety vehicles could be seen parked outside the school and driving through the parking lot as students arrived.

The school will continue to provide ongoing grief counseling.

Des Moines Public Schools Associate Superintendent Matt Smith told reporters the district would begin a series of community conversations focused on school safety.

But he cautioned: “Gun Violence is not the problem of Des Moines Public Schools to solve alone.”

In recent weeks, community leaders have amplified this message through forums and news conferences. There has also been a focus on what some see as Iowa’s lax gun laws. Groups like Al Éxito and Urban Dreams have been leading those conversations and working with the school to help students transition back to the classroom.

“In my opinion, Iowa’s gun laws are too loose, and guns are flooding our streets,” said Frantz Whitfield, a 1999 East High School graduate, during a news conference last week. “Young people are being gunned down by immature and untrained individuals who are finding it all too easy to obtain firearms.”

Whitfield is president of the Iowa chapter of National Action Network and a pastor at Mount Carmel Baptist Church in Waterloo.

At East, the focus will continue to be on healing from the loss of a student.

Smith confirmed Lopez-Perez had been a Des Moines schools’ student but did not specify which school he attended.

“This is our very own student. This is a student that we have been with his entire career,” Smith said. “We have loved, we have cared for (him) as a community and as a school district. And it’s been heartbreaking since March 7.”

The teen was not enrolled in DMPS at the time of his death.

“Once a student in Des Moines Public Schools is always a student … Our care and love for the children actually doesn’t stop once they are no longer attending our school district,” he said.

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Marisol Argueta-Hernandez, one of two students to speak, praised the strength of students and staff.

“East High School Scarlets are so, so strong, but we shouldn’t have to be,” the 17-year-old said. “We hope for a better future for our students and staff, for the next generation to come and for those everywhere.”

The community has embraced the school’s motto “Scarlet strong” in the wake of the tragedy, said East’s new principal Jill Versteeg. Scarlet is the school’s color.

“Even in these very dark moments, we find hope,” Versteeg said. “And that hope, for me, comes from our community and our students and our families and the teachers of the school.”

Samantha Hernandez covers education for the Register. Reach her at (515) 851-0982 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @svhernandez or Facebook at facebook.com/svhernandezreporter.

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