116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Gentine Nzoyikorera, a senior at Kennedy High School, was recognized last week with the Dr. Percy and Lileah Harris “Who Is My Neighbor?” award for her leadership and commitment to moving “Linn County closer to the dream” of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
The award is given annually to student and adult leaders in Eastern Iowa who are leading social justice work. Social justice is the belief that everyone deserves equal economic, political and social rights and opportunities.
Nzoyikorera, 18, spoke at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Cedar Rapids last week during a celebration in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a federal holiday that honors the civil rights icon who was assassinated in 1968.
As a leader of Kennedy High’s Black Student Union — an advocacy group for Black and historically marginalized students — Nzoyikorera said she is most proud of the group’s work to remove school resource officers — police — from schools.
“Removing school resource officers from school buildings still is not complete, but it is better,” Nzoyikorera said last week. “A single voice gets lost in the masses and words themselves sometimes are not enough.”
Nzoyikorera has been outspoken about wanting to see changes made to the school resource officer program in the Cedar Rapids Community School District. In August 2022, school officials approved a new contract with the police department, removing two officers from the program.
There are five officers total stationed at Kennedy, Washington, Jefferson and Metro high schools and Polk Alternative school in Cedar Rapids.
The school district began an audit of its school resource officer program during the summer of 2020 after many students asked for change, driven by a disproportionate rate of Black students being arrested.
Changes like these made to the program over the last two years is contributing to fewer children being charged with a crime in schools and decreasing the racial disparity of those complaints, according to data from the Iowa Department of Human Rights.
Know Your Rights
Students in the high school’s Black Student Unions helped district officials create a short video last year meant to educate students on their rights and what they should and shouldn’t do when interacting with a police officer.
The script was drafted with the help of many lawyers, including Jenny Schultz, attorney and executive director of Kids First Law. Kids First Law Center gives children a voice in divorce, custody and other disputes by providing them with legal representation and services.
In a two-and-a-half-minute video, students share seven things to remember when interacting with a police officer:
- If the police talk to you, you don’t have to answer any questions.
- If the police stop you, stay calm, don’t run away or argue and ask if you are free to go. If they say yes, slowly walk away.
- Police can ask misleading questions or make false statements while questioning you.
- You have less of a right to privacy at school than at home.
- You can refuse to be searched. The police cannot search your phone, personal property or your person without a warrant.
- Don’t say anything, sign anything or decide anything without first talking to a lawyer or your parents.
- Ask to speak to your parent and a lawyer and tell the police if you wish to stay silent.
Over the last year, the Black Student Union at Kennedy also has been educating their peers on why the use of racial slurs, which they say are commonly heard in the school’s hallways, is inappropriate.
Kennedy’s Black Student Union is hosting its second “Voices of the Voiceless” night 5 p.m. Jan. 27, an open mic night at Kennedy High, 4545 Wenig Rd. NE in Cedar Rapids. The event is open to the public.
The Warriorettes, a Washington High School dance group, also will be performing at the event. The students perform majorette dancing, a traditionally Black style of dance that blends movements from jazz, West African and hip-hop dance styles.
About Percy and Lileah Harris
Dr. Percy Harris was the first Black physician in Cedar Rapids and served as Linn County medical examiner for almost 40 years, as well as president of the Cedar Rapids chapter of the NAACP and chair of the board of directors of the Jane Boyd Community House. He also served on the boards of UnityPoint Health-St. Luke’s and the Iowa Board of Regents.
Lileah Harris was an advocate of lifelong learning and education. She also served on the board of the NAACP, was a member of the Cedar Rapids Human Rights Commission and served on the board of the Cedar Rapids Symphony Guild, now Orchestra Iowa.
The program last week was hosted by St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in collaboration with First Light Christian Fellowship, Mount Mercy University, Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church and the NAACP, with special thanks to the African American Museum of Iowa, the Cedar Rapids Public Library and the Cedar Rapids Civil Rights Commission.
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