Northeast mourns young lives lost to gun violence

By Abby Hoover

On Tuesday, May 31, educators, parents, lawmakers and community members gathered at Latinx Education Collaborative (LEC) at 2203 Lexington Avenue to mourn the lives of children lost to gun violence. 

LEC hosted a candlelight vigil for the 19 students and two teachers killed, and those injured, in Uvalde, Tx., on May 24. They held space for all young victims of gun violence, including those locally.

For Edgar Palacios, Independence Plaza resident and founder of LEC and Revolución Educativa (RevEd), the tragedy hit close to home. His organization works to retain and increase the representation of Latinx education professionals in grade schools, and increase education outcomes for Latinx students.

“First and foremost, I think it’s important to remember that kids died and I think we often forget that that happened or it feels like that we forget,” Palacios said. “We move on quickly to policy, we move on quickly to all the other adjustments that need to happen, and in reality, kids have died. We want to make sure to honor that and hold space.”

Palacios felt it was important, in a community that, just like in Uvalde and across the nation, has students, classrooms, children and educators that want to be kept safe, to bring attention to this on a local level.

“I think it’s important for the community to see that we hold space for each other, and that we’re here not just to talk about the tragedies, but also to think about the hope that exists in this moment,” Palacios said. “School safety is not just a district issue, it is a community issue. So I think we have to come together as a community to say that we want to better our children, and we have to do that in partnership as a community.”

For LEC and RevEd, advocacy is a key component of their work.

“If we hold each other accountable, if we’re in relationships with each other, we’re less likely to be violent against each other,” Palacios said. “Hopefully we’re going to have a conversation, we’re going to be talking about certain things. But if we don’t know each other, we don’t value each other’s humanity, then we might make different decisions. Important in this work is the idea of bringing people together, and particularly such a diverse neighborhood like ours… They want to be a part of a neighborhood like this. They want to be part of the Historic Northeast, and they want to lead safe lives. I think safety is something that we can hopefully all agree on.”

Right now, educators are scared. In addition to all the other challenges they face on a daily basis, now they also have to have their lives at risk, Palacios said. 

“Nobody should have to face it in this world,” Palacios said. “We should be having good times, learning how to read, not teaching kids how to avoid a shooter, right? I think first and foremost is acknowledging that there’s a lot of stress and a lot of fear that exists and so how do we create space for them to grieve and to think about these things in a way that they feel honored?”

He said communities need to come together to protect and uplift educators.

“We need to do things on behalf of our teachers so they can protect our students and I think that is something that is critically important,” Palacios said. “Some of that looks like advocacy, some of it looks like testifying before meetings, some of that looks like elevating the voices of those who don’t feel comfortable speaking in public. It can look like a lot of different things, but a safe community is a healthy community, and that’s what we’re trying to build.”

Palacios hopes the lawmakers and those running for office who were in attendance prioritize this community’s children.

“Whether that is school safety or education initiatives that are going to improve the quality of our schools, I hope that they see that the future is dependent on our kids,” Palacios said. “So we want to make sure to have safe environments for kids, because ultimately, they’re the ones that are going to be leading the way.”

Musicians played ceremonial music from the Andes to honor the lives lost and create a spiritual atmosphere as community members laid candles in front of the mural of two Latinx children on the side of LEC’s building.

“It’s hard to look at the news and see the kids that were murdered brutally in their classroom and it’s hard to see that they could be your own children, your own cousins, your own family,” said Palacios, who has a young daughter. “It’s so important that we remain in community during this moment, that we hold space for each other. A lot of us are processing through our own trauma and grief in this moment, and so I want to acknowledge that and I want to say that this space is for you to hopefully begin healing.”

According to LEC, 25% of children in the U.S. are Latino, and 30% of children attending public schools in Kansas City are Latino.

“They don’t feel seen or they don’t feel respected and valued, and they’re struggling a lot,” said Christy Moreno, Chief Community Advocacy and Impact Officer for RevEd. “We as parents, myself included, as educators, as program leaders, as elected officials, it is time to do something about gun violence. Every single day, my own children are terrified to step outside. Experiencing four lockdowns this year alone in their schools, for weapons inside school buildings. This should not be normal. Our children should not expect that.”

Her hope was that each adult in attendance would walk out with a stronger commitment to ensure that children live happy, healthy lives, and that they deliver on the promises they have made to their own children and to the youth of the community that they will have an equitable education, and their spiritual, mental, emotional, physical, academic, and other needs are met.

Many belief systems came together to mourn, including members from Chùa Quan Âm, the Vietnamese Buddhist temple across the street from LEC. Reverends Tito Herrera and Patrick McLaughlin of Church of the Resurrection downtown, shared words of healing with those gathered, read the names of those killed, and prayed over them.

“It’s beautiful to see brown, black, white, brothers and sisters of all kinds, gathered in this space,” said McLaughlin, a resident of Pendleton Heights. “Our gathering tonight, our activities as a neighborhood, however you’re gathering, is a sign of life that pushes out the darkness. That pushes out evil, pushes out the people who would do these kinds of things, to children, to anybody that’s walking by.”

Since 2020, gun violence has been the leading cause of death among children, which McLaughlin sees as a tragedy.

“My education, my teaching, says though, that we can not only focus on addressing the leading causes of death – which is something we can do, we can do something about gun violence – but we also have to pursue life,” McLaughlin said. “That we have to build, create, pursue, seek out life and this right here is life in action. Anything that you’re doing is life and action. While these children, these people, have passed from us in their physical forms, they’re still with us. They’re alive inside of each and every one of you.”

The reading of each name was followed by the group responding, “present” in their native languages. At the end, McLaughlin held space for any other names those in attendance wanted to honor.  

“What happened last week is a call to action,” said Mattie Rhodes Center’s (MRC) President and CEO John Fierro. “We all live in Kansas City, but what happened in Uvalde could very well happen here. We have to appeal to our policymakers to ensure that sufficient resources are available to our school systems, to ensure that those facilities are safe, secure, that they have the proper personnel to defend our kids, our teachers, our administrators, and to be there to provide support post something like that happening – but even detecting when something is being talked about in the school, in the community, about somebody who is looking to violence as an outlet to behavioral health issues.”

MRC offers behavioral health therapy services for individuals, families and groups. For anyone who knows someone who could benefit from therapy, MRC is available at (816) 581-5650. Fierro added that behavioral health and education go hand-in-hand, and MRC is working with LEC to support both teachers and families.

Angela Florez, senior service coordinator with MRC, said their behavioral health services are contracted into several different schools throughout Northeast Kansas City in the Westside area.

“This tragedy really just hit close to home, working with elementary kids, black and brown skin color, you know we’re already being the minority,” Florez said. “We’re already facing these risks and struggling and trying to fight through so many battles. To have this, it was just so much to hear for our kiddos and to have to answer these questions out of concern of what’s going on. Are they safe at school? Are they safe at the park? Nowadays, we don’t even know.”

With a society that doesn’t take responsibility, sending kids to school and hoping that they are safe, teachers are not just educators, they’re now protectors, which isn’t fair, Florez said.

“They’re having to face these adult issues at such a young age, it’s such a crisis that we’re all living in, especially for them,” Florez said. “Just having mental health and behavioral health mentors and therapists, case managers in schools, we need to stick together. We need to bring more people out, more people of color to be there, to represent and to connect with one another and hopefully at least make an impact on these kids so they can grow up healthy and safer in this environment.”

Scuola Vita Nuova (SVN) Superintendent Nicole Goodman attended the vigil with her students in mind. SVN has 115 students attending summer enrichment on June 6 through 23.

“When I see this happen, and I think the next day was our last day of school, and honestly I didn’t hear of a lot of questions, but I know that I had staff members that were a little uneasy considering, obviously,” Goodman said. “This is scary, I never want this to happen in my school or anything but I think it’s just a reminder of why we have procedures, safety.”

Safety, for her, is the number one priority, and this has been a reminder to never let her guard down. Academics, social emotional needs, and helping teachers not feel overwhelmed also weigh heavily on her.

“This is the reason behind why we have these procedures in place, and we’re very lucky at SVN, we have I feel like a very secured facility,” Goodman said. “Nothing’s perfect, but we do have safety measures in place and we take them very seriously. Our staff, students and families, overall, feel like it is a safe place for kids to come and learn.”

When students arrive each day, they interact with at least five adults before they reach the classroom. The Deans of Student Culture works to build stronger, stronger relationships, make sure kids are connected, making sure that kids know that they can talk to their teachers or therapists through MRC. SVN focuses on building safe spaces, and staff are trained to notice if a student isn’t okay.

State Rep. Ingrid Burnett, a retired educator and resident of Northeast, has felt numb since she heard the news. When the shooting happened at Sandy Hook in December 2012, she was the acting principal of a school in Independence. She remembers gathering all the teachers together to pray and grieve the totally unexpected tragedy. Now, she’s working to make change at the state level to prevent school shootings that have occured all too often since. 

“We can add common sense gun laws, it’s pretty obvious right?” Burnett said. “Gets more and more obvious all the time. We need to keep guns, assault weapons, weapons of mass destruction, weapons that are intended to kill lots of people, we can keep them out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them. We could be putting in things like background checks and waiting periods. I don’t know what’s so hard about that. Red flag laws, I don’t know what’s so hard about that, but that’s one thing we could be doing. There’s a bigger problem here. We also need to be addressing the root problem.”

Society didn’t get to this point overnight, and won’t get out of it overnight, Burnett said. But in the meantime, she thinks schools and public places should increase security. 

“We have to put some guardrails around who is allowed to have assault weapons,” Burnett said. “We’re going to have to create safe spaces, then take a look at the bigger issues.”

Latinx Education Collaborative and Mattie Rhodes Center have resources for students, families, teachers and the community in the wake of this tragedy. Visit their websites at latinxedco.org and mattierhodes.org

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