Des Moines, Iowa — The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Iowa is pleased to announce that Endí Montalvo-Martinez, age 18, and Lyric Sellers, age 17, of Des Moines are the winners of its Robert Mannheimer Youth Advocacy Award.
The ACLU is honoring Endí and Lyric, while students at East High School, for helping to lead the charge to end the presence of school resources officers (SROs) in Des Moines Public Schools (DMPS). The SRO contract with the City of Des Moines was valued at $1.5 million in 2020.
The monumental change stemmed partly from a racial equity proposal created by Endí and Lyric on their own time and through their own initiative. It called for gathering data on and ending the SRO program district-wide. It also successfully advocated for implementing classes like Chicano studies, African American studies, and LGBTQ history at East High School, along with removing an offensive Native American school mascot.
Endí and Lyric knew many of their peers, especially other students of color, were intimidated by SROs. In fact, as part of putting together the proposal, they reached out to the Iowa Department of Human Rights and gathered data on racial disparities perpetuated by the SRO program. Data showed Black students were six times more likely to interact with police officers in DMPS schools than white students.
"I just don't feel comfortable around police. I never have because I see exactly what they do to people that look like me," said Lyric, a senior at East High School. "When you walk into your building and see an officer, you immediately feel distrusted by the people in your building."
Endí and Lyric’s research for the proposal also found that most infractions handled by SROs rarely amounted to even a simple misdemeanor and could often be handled within school buildings using a restorative justice model.
"SROs don't ensure student safety. SRO programs just give some people a sense of safety. But we see through the data and lived experience of students that SROs don't actually help," said Endí, now a community public health major at Iowa State University (ISU). "I think it's very wrong not to reimagine a new system that does work for students."
After community pressure, DMPS district leaders eventually presented a plan to end the SRO program to the school board. The board finally expressed its support for the plan at a meeting in 2021.
The meeting was an important moment. Endí and Lyric Facetimed each other while watching the meeting on Zoom unfold from home. They recalled the moment feeling "surreal" and "magical," but their work seemed far from finished.
"Even when we were on the phone, we were already planning, 'What are we going to do next?' It just showed where our passion lies… With this work, always," Lyric said.
Both students moved on to helping form district equity teams and organized an East High School walkout to oppose legislation that would censor discussions about race in schools and defund public education.
They also planned a restorative justice town hall to receive community feedback on how DMPS could better respond to and prevent peer-to-peer and peer-to-teacher altercations. Additionally, they offered a district-wide, two-week leadership retreat for younger students. Endí and Lyric want to pass along the resources and strategies they’ve learned to others.
"This whole thing is very community-oriented. If we didn't have the people that we had supporting us and feeding into this being possible, it wouldn't have happened," Lyric said.
Lyric is currently a senior at East High School and participates in student activism, along with basketball and theater. She plans to attend ISU and major in communications.
Endí is now the co-founder of the Color of Love, a student organization at ISU that focuses on building community with students of color on campus and providing opportunities for student-based organizing. Endí is also building a pipeline of mentorships between students at East High School and Iowa State.
"What I would like to see is the abolition of any system working against us and having systems that work for all of us as a community," Endí said.
The ACLU of Iowa Robert Mannheimer Youth Advocacy Award is a $500 cash prize given to a young Iowan aged 14 to 19 who has demonstrated a passion and advocacy for civil liberties. It is named as a memorial to Des Moines attorney and civil liberties advocate Robert Mannheimer.
"We applaud and honor the activism and advocacy of Endi and Lyric," said ACLU of Iowa Executive Director Mark Stringer. "Their inspiring efforts and success remind us that we all have roles to play in creating positive change and building community."
A second-place award goes to Gabe Barnes of Cedar Falls. Gabe has done significant LGBTQ rights activism throughout his middle and high school years, notably organizing GSA meetings and activities that spanned multiple middle and high schools in the Cedar Rapids school district.
A third-place award goes to Beatrice Kaskie of Iowa City. Beatrice founded and amplified multiple youth justice groups and programs during her four years at Iowa City Liberty High School, starting largely from scratch since the school is only five years old.
For more information on the Robert Mannheimer award, click here.
For photos of Endí and Lyric, click here.