In turbulent times, Des Moines’ Roosevelt gets it right again

Fairness isn’t owned by any political party, which sometimes trips up adults who aim to keep their political footing firmly on the side of justice. Those who often find themselves straddling divergent political views could learn a lot from Roosevelt High School in Des Moines.

The school is in the news again, this time for a message from Principal Kevin Biggs. Delivered via the school intercom and shared with parents via email, the message came on the heels of President Donald Trump’s executive order to prohibit immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States at least for now.

“To all of our students who are immigrants or refugees — and to their friends and classmates and teachers who are also concerned because of these recent events — know that you belong here. Roosevelt (High School) and (Des Moines Public Schools) stand by you,” Biggs said.

The message noted that many consider Roosevelt to be the most diverse high school in the state — “a student body that encompasses over 40 different languages and cultures” — which Biggs said was “a strength” and “gift” that should be used to help those affiliated with the school “grow as human beings.”

“Because of your attendance at (Roosevelt), I believe you possess, or will eventually possess, a unique perspective on life and the world, one that will prepare you well for whatever conflict is thrown in your way in the next few years,” he said.

“This is a time where Roughriders can show the world what happens when unity and love overcome injustice. We love and respect each and every one of you and hope to prove that through our actions each day.”

The heartfelt message is the most recent, but far from the only time the spotlight has shown on Roosevelt.

Twenty minutes before school let out on Oct. 13, 2016, hundreds of Roosevelt High School students in Des Moines held a walkout protest in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. The event was organized by student Tyerell Jones with approval from school administrators, and is a prime example of the many ways students at Roosevelt are encouraged to let their voices be heard and find strength through their diversity. (Photo from Des Moines Public Schools/Flickr)

Last October, with approval of school administrators, student Tyerell Jones organized a walkout in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Jones and Nina Gregory, a senior at Roosevelt, read poems and discussed recent events that led to the walkout. Other students distributed “Unity in Diversity” bracelets.

Biggs said of that event, “They believe in human rights. They believe in standing up when injustices occur, and in their minds, this is the best way to do it. And I’m proud of them for doing it.”

About a month later, in the wake of the shooting deaths of two Des Moines-area police officers, Roosevelt students led the way again. They sold T-shirts and bottles of Rider Root Beer with proceeds going to the two families.

One of the fallen officers, Sgt. Tony Beminio, had been the school’s resource officer, a person Biggs said had “a huge impact on the culture of our building.”

In a bid to continue its welcoming and open atmosphere, Roosevelt opened two gender-neutral bathrooms in 2016.

“We want all of our students to feel safe, respected and accepted as they truly are. So after the students came to me, I realized we had an obligation to put this in,” Biggs told the Des Moines Register. “We are more than just textbooks. We are a community and we want to support every member of that community.”

There have been a host of other, smaller issues since Biggs began his tenure as principal in July 2013, and each time he has shepherded discussion back to the interest of students and the Roosevelt community.

As any adult who has tried to navigate the too often vehement “us vs. them” rhetoric that permeates most current political discourse will tell you, this is no small feat.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on February 5, 2017. Photo credit: Des Moines Public Schools/Flickr