The weather may have been gloomy and gray this morning, but there were signs of hope and brightness at East High School as students returned to classes for the first time since a drive-by shooting near the edge of campus on March 7 left one teenager dead and two injured.
The days since that tragic afternoon included Spring Break but, perhaps more importantly, time that was also dedicated to counseling and other supports for East students and staff. Classes might not have been in session but East High was open and supporting its community.
And in the days since, #ScarletStrong has become more than a hashtag but a way for people near and far to unite and rally and show their care for the people of East High.
Before the main entrance was re-opened this morning, district, school and student leaders spoke with the media about the recent experience and moving forward.
“Coming to school today is bittersweet for us,” noted associate superintendent Matt Smith. “It’s bittersweet because we recognize we have not healed yet from the loss that we’ve suffered as a community and as a school. We will continue to suffer and we will continue to heal, but in that healing is the hope that we will get better and we will find joy again here at school and in our community. But it’s going to take us doing that together. It’s going to take us loving one another and being here and showing up every day for one another.”
“Even in these very dark moments we find hope and that hope for me comes from our community and our students and our families and the teachers of this school,” said Jill Versteeg, who just recently was named principal of East High School. “I cannot say enough kind words about the staff of East High School. Even though they’ve been experiencing their own grief and their own trauma, they were here for our students and for each other.”
Both Smith and Versteeg thanked the many community partners who have supported East throughout this ordeal, including Urban Dreams, Al Exito, Dads on a Mission, and more.
Two East High seniors and student leaders also shared their thoughts before classes resumed. “It is hard to be back after what occurred two weeks ago,” said Leslie Marquez. “The East community must come together to provide support for one another; not just now, but from now on. Please take time to practice self-care as needed, and be mindful of those around you grieving.” And Marisol Argueta-Hernandez added: “We hope for a better future for our students and staff, for the next generations to come, and for those everywhere.”
At 8:00 AM, the doors to East High were unlocked and a special welcome committee was on hand to greet students as they headed back to class for the first time in 15 days. School Board members, a state legislator, community leaders and alumni lined up to greet students. There were fist bumps and high fives and a few hugs as students made their way into the school building to start back in with the final stretch of the 2021-22 school year.
Inside were other shows of support for East. Signs from several schools throughout the metro hung from walls, wishing the Scarlets well. Flyers were posted on how to support the victims. And murals made by students, with words such as “East High is the school for me,” were on display.
Two things were heard over and over throughout the morning. First, it was great to see students back at East, ready to resume their studies as well as their connections with friends and teachers. And second, support for East, specifically, and public schools, generally, cannot fade after a tragedy but must be sustained. That is one reason Des Moines Public Schools, in the coming days, will be announcing a series of community discussions, partnering with community-based organizations to facilitate a chance for people to provide feedback, make suggestions, and brainstorm on how to build a better foundation of support for our children, our schools, and our entire community.