In Iowa, Students Collaborate with City and State to Reshape School Safety
By Sher Jamal Stone
In Des Moines, Iowa, the start of the 2021 school year looked different, and not simply because of the global pandemic. For the first time in 10 years, police officers no longer occupied school grounds. In the largest school district in Iowa, School Resource Officers (SROs) have been replaced by unarmed staff trained in mental health and de-escalation techniques.
This move was driven by students who collaborated closely with city officials to improve the climate of their schools.
For East High School students Endi Montalvo-Martínez, 18, and Lyric Sellers, 17, this victory marked the end of more than a year of research and advocacy. As the two students advanced through high school, they saw firsthand that the presence of law enforcement was making many students, particularly students of color, feel less safe.
“Cops do not belong in a learning environment,” Sellers told her school newspaper. “It is actually concerning to think that there are many people who cannot envision a productive learning environment without cops being involved.”
In 2020, the COVID-19 global pandemic and protests against police killings of unarmed Black men and women across the country combined to bring a new level of urgency to the conversation around law enforcement in schools. At the time, neither students nor police were on campus, as the district was operating remotely.
Over Zoom, a teacher suggested that Sellers and Montalvo-Martínez might want to apply to the newly announced Youth Action Squad.
Changing the Power Dynamic
The Youth Action Squad (YAS) program brings youth voice and insights into local and state governing. It is jointly run by the Iowa Department of Human Rights and the Iowa Collaboration for Youth Development Council, an interagency effort involving multiple state-level departments.
Young members of Youth Action Squads are trained, paid, and supported to conduct independent research and turn it into an actionable plan that they themselves present directly to city and state officials.
Kayla Powell, Youth in Transition Database Coordinator and Youth Development Coordinator with the State of Iowa’s Department of Human Rights, helped launch and lead the Youth Action Squad program in 2020. She says that its pilot year was an opportunity to put youth in real leadership roles, and to follow their lead in designing the program and how members interact with government.
“The Youth Action Squads members are ages 14 to 24, and the group facilitators are youth and young adults. In addition, two of the three of our AmeriCorps members and myself who oversee the program are youth and young adults,” Powell says. “That’s a youth engagement and youth development approach that our department takes. The whole idea of the Youth Action Squads is that it’s all young people leading and doing the work.”
To create an authentic youth-adult partnership, Powell and her team had to be explicit about what previous attempts at youth voice and engagement in government had gotten wrong.
“Adults are getting a little bit better about inviting youth to the table, but they're still not acting on what the youth are saying,” Powell says. “So then, truly, what's the point of having youth at the table, if adults aren't going to listen and do what they say? Authentic youth engagement in policymaking looks like proximity and representation where youth are the policymakers.”
“Authentic youth engagement in policymaking looks like proximity and representation, where youth are the policymakers.”
Trouble Getting Traction
Both Sellers and Montalvo-Martínez saw the Youth Action Squad as an opportunity to take their activism to the next level.
“Lyric and I had been working on racial equity,” Montalvo-Martínez says. But they were unsure how to change the hearts and minds of the school board. “We thought this would be an amazing opportunity to leverage the Department of Human Rights and see our action plan through to the end.”
Shortly after the program got underway, the Youth Action Squad broke into groups to tackle the issues that its young members had identified as top priorities: the ongoing pandemic response in Iowa, and the need for racial equity.
Sellers and Montalvo-Martínez joined the Racial Equity Youth Action Squad to continue pushing Des Moines Public Schools (DMPS) to remove police from school grounds. Other young people opted to work on issues ranging from the introduction of Indigenous Studies into the state curriculum, to providing better monetary compensation and equipment to nurses during the pandemic.
The Youth Action Squad members spent the first few weeks getting to know one another and how to work together. Sellers, Montalvo-Martínez, and their peers started making inroads with DMPS officials, including School Board members who had the authority to accept or reject plans to remove SROs.
Montalvo-Martínez and Sellers were invited to speak about SROs at a School Board meeting hosted on Zoom. While their presentation was effective in starting a dialogue around SROs, without local evidence or larger social pressure, they quickly found that they weren’t getting much traction among the school board to take real action.
“Sharing the lived experience of their peers wasn't enough to convince city officials, which is unfortunate, it should be enough,” Powell says.
Together, the Youth Action Squad members crafted a solution: pair first-hand experiences with data.
Working with Powell, the Squad reached out to the Department of Human Rights’ Division of Criminal & Juvenile Justice Planning and asked them to compile a report on the 10-year impact of SROs in Des Moines. The department was given permission to use time and financial resources to develop a data report.
“The report actually gave credit to the Racial Justice Youth Action Squad members,” Powell says. “I think it's really cool that the Youth Action Squad dictated how state employees spent their time and resources. That's the direction I wish it was all the time.”
The report showed a staggering 200 percent increase in the number of juvenile charges that originated at Des Moines public schools during the period that SROs were active—more than 60 percent of which were for misdemeanors and were not a concern to public safety. These arrests disproportionately involved Black youth. This evidence proved that the negative impact of SROs on non-white students was not just a national trend, but a local one too.
Then, with the cooperation of the Youth Action Squad, DMPS sent out surveys to students, parents, and staff asking about feelings around SROs. Of the more than 22,000 respondents, 38 percent of high school students thought SROs were helpful and only a third of staff viewed them as “important.”
“[Students who have a positive relationship with an SRO] should not invalidate the negative and often traumatizing experiences that students have that usually lead to their criminalization,” Montalvo-Martínez said. “Students should be creating positive relationships with their admin, their teachers, and other support staff—people who give them the actual resources to be successful.”
In an op-ed for the Des Moines Register, Montalvo-Martínez and Sellers called attention to SRO contract costs: the county spent more than $1.5 million annually on law enforcement in schools. The students’ proposed divestment plan would reallocate those funds towards support staff, such as therapists and social workers, as well as training teachers on trauma-informed de-escalation strategies.
“We propose that this contract not be renewed and that these funds instead be reallocated toward systemically changing not only how Des Moines Public Schools responds to incidents, but also how it works toward solving underlying issues,” the pair wrote.
In early 2021, the Youth Action Squad was once again invited to again present their restorative justice plan to the school board, this time buoyed by the research they’d collected in partnership with state government.
“Attendance to school should not be a potential entry into the criminal justice system,” Sellers said in an opening statement. “Everything leads to the notion of SROs removal: the personal experiences, the research, the validation from mental health specialists, and the data, collected by the Iowa Department of Human Rights.”
The School Board adopted the Youth Action Squad’s restorative justice plan at their next meeting.
The plan will unfurl across two years, starting with the removal of SROs from all five of Des Moines high schools, communicating the change to staff, students, and parents, and training teachers. The second year will refocus the funding reserved for the SRO contract toward 20 new staff positions and 20 stipends for new responsibilities to help support students’ mental health and wellbeing.
Supporting Youth to Lead
From the start, Powell and her team of youth facilitators set an expectation of transparency and co-creation with the more than 20 members of the Youth Action Squads.
Sharing power does not always come easy for the adults in the room. As a young person in a professional role, Powell sees both sides of this challenge. “You have to push your pride aside and know, this is going to be real messy,” she says.
“When we first started, there was some concern about letting youth have complete agency and autonomy over what issues they decided to work on, but it's something that we were persistent about as a planning team: that youth choose the issues and the action plans are their ideas,” says Powell.
In order for the Youth Action Squad to work, everyone, young people and adults alike, would need to challenge their own biases and assumptions. They also needed to be intentional about the supports for young people.
“I think sometimes, [adults] forget about the importance of prep work, and also debrief,” Powell says. Every Friday evening before the meetings, the Squad facilitators held a dry run to prepare for meetings for the next week. Powell and the team also held debriefings after each meeting, explicitly naming the “pros and grows”—what did and didn’t work well. They invited peers and external partners to sit in on sessions and share pointers for genuinely supporting youth leadership.
The Youth Action Squads adopted a youth participatory research model. And connection to state government also helped. “There are tons of community-level organizations and national organizations that use the same approach. I think what is different about the Youth Action Squads is that it is coming from a state agency,” says Powell.
Powell also notes that staff and leadership must commit to an approach that centers young people as the experts in issues that impact their lives. “You have to have people who are committed to best practice, who are committed to being persistent and resistant to the pushback, or it's just going to be another watered-down youth program.”
Montalvo-Martínez has experienced programs that don’t live up to their promise when it comes to engaging youth in leadership and decision-making: “When you’re asked for youth perspective, oftentimes no action comes from it. And when youth try to speak up and be more assertive, we’re gaslit by adults and made to feel like what we think isn't important.”
In this case, the impact of young advocates collaborating with city and state officials is unmistakable.
After the Squad presented before the school board, Rob Barron, Vice Chair of DMPS, said, “As I’ve read and as I’ve grown a bit over the last 10 or 12 months, I’m more comfortable giving authority to our students. Lyric and Endi are amazing leaders and have done some really good work in preparing data, in advocating, in being persistent, and are really showing us the outcomes that we hope for in our kids.”
Jordan Pineda, who, as Policy Manager at the Forum for Youth Investment, helps different states map out their youth participatory action research, says that “the work the Iowa Youth Action squads have done is incredible – their ability to achieve such a progressive win during a time of such polarization should inspire us all to organize better, be better, and do better. The Iowa Collaboration for Youth Development has shown us what can happen when we remove the structural and ageist barriers that stand between young people and their ability to practice their citizenship alongside decision makers.”
“The Iowa Collaboration for Youth Development has shown us what can happen when we remove the structural and ageist barriers that stand between young people and their ability to practice their citizenship alongside decision makers.”
The Iowa Department of Human Rights is working to replicate the model by launching two new Youth Action Squads, one anchored in a community-based organization and the other school-based. Similarly structured work with young people is being undertaken across the country, in places like New Orleans and Brooklyn Center, Minnesota.
There is also interest in expanding this model to the federal level: a coalition of advocates is calling for a federal Children’s Cabinet and Youth Council to bring youth-adult partnerships to the Executive branch.
Youth Action Squad (on iowa.gov)
Related Links: https://njjn.org/uploads/digital-library/Police-Free%20School%20Final_July2021_1.pdf (PDF, 13 pages)