DES MOINES, Iowa — The Youth Town Hall series was envisioned as a place where Des Moines’ teenagers could have “barber shop conversations.” The event reached its potential Thursday night, as students shared their struggles with mental health and the school environment.

“Violence is a symptom, so we want to get to the root cause behind it,” said Youth Town Hall organizer RJ Miller.

The first Youth Town Hall in February was dominated by adult voices, but teenagers controlled the conversation during the town hall’s second edition. They asked Des Moines Public Schools and city officials for more mental health support, and said that investment would turn around the city’s youth culture.

“What can we do to fix these problems when we can normalize being ourselves?” said January Hudson, a junior at North High School. “We can’t start here if we don’t know who we are.”

Other students claimed that there is a culture of inequality within some Des Moines schools.

“All the kids that are valued and listened to by the leadership are white,” said Deziyre Miller, a freshman at Roosevelt High School. “All the kids that need the most help are Black.”

“A lot of students aren’t engaging because they’re afraid of being judged,” said Nikunja Budathoki, Miller’s classmate at Roosevelt. “They’re afraid of saying what’s wrong because if they say what’s wrong, they’re being dramatic. People are going to judge them, look down on them, and tell them it wasn’t that serious.”

State Rep. Ruth Ann Gaines, who taught in Des Moines for 40 years, told the Youth Town Hall crowd that she plans to introduce a bill for mandatory mental health professionals at Iowa public schools.

The next Youth Town Hall has not been scheduled yet, but attendees hope Thursday’s conversation starts a change within Des Moines’ teenagers.

“Too many times when our students tell us what they need, we’re hearing them, but we’re not listening,” said Theron Hobbs, Des Moines Public Schools’ recruitment and retention coordinator. “We need to start listening to these kids.”