Waterloo transgender bathroom policy leads to demonstrations, school harassment probe
Editor's note: This story was originally published in theBelleville News-Democrat.
A Waterloo District 5 policy that allows transgender students to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity recently led to controversy at the high school.
On Friday, a group of high school boys planned to go to the nurse’s office at the same time as a form of protest. Others joined in, resulting in a long line of 135 students that filled the hallway and made some late for class, according to students and district officials.
The school district is investigating the incident as potentially being planned harassment of transgender students. In an interview Monday, District 5 Superintendent Brian Charron said officials were still looking into students’ motives for participating in the protest, as well as investigating new accusations about harassment from over the weekend.
Parents and community members joined the demonstrations when the school board met Monday night. A group of about 75 people gathered at the high school for prayer and a rally to send the message that they oppose the bathroom policy and they do not think students should be disciplined for protesting it.
District officials say they are following the law with their policy.
Officials moved Monday’s school board meeting from the high school library to the auditorium to accommodate a large crowd. Attendees shared their opinions with the board for more than an hour during the meeting. Twenty-six people spoke.
Most speakers were opposed to the policy, supported the student protest or had a complaint about communication from the district on the bathroom issue. Four spoke about protecting and supporting transgender students, and two more encouraged attendees to meet and learn from people who are different from them.
Parents, students address school board
Parents Jonathan Elder and Justin Demers were among those who spoke out against the bathroom policy. During the meeting, they accused transgender boys of using school urinals, which they said made other students in the bathroom uncomfortable.
Elder, the youth ministry director at Life Church X in Columbia, said he heard about it from students through the church. Demers, a local pastor, said he heard about it from his son, who told Demers he witnessed it.
Waterloo High School junior Brayden Mazdra said in an interview after the meeting that the allegations about the urinals are not true. Charron also said Monday night that school officials had so far been unable to substantiate those allegations.
Mazdra said he knows most of the transgender students at the high school through his involvement with Diversity Club, a high school group for LGBTQ students and allies.
“I think that a lot of them honestly already don’t feel comfortable in the restroom, and so they like to just go in, go right to the stall and that’s that, behind the closed door where they’re safe and not looking at anybody else,” Mazdra said.
Elder cited other concerns during the meeting, including that high school boys feel they have less privacy and that they feel unsafe because of a fear they could face false accusations about inappropriate behavior. Elder said he was speaking on behalf of several parents who shared their thoughts with him prior to the meeting.
He suggested the district make one bathroom at the high school gender-neutral or surround all of the toilets with stalls. “That seems like a common sense answer to me,” Elder said.
District officials took notes while members of the public spoke but did not address their own views during the meeting. They said through legal counsel they would be responding to the community at a later date.
Mazdra emphasized in his comments to the board that he has never felt uncomfortable using the boy’s bathroom at school.
“I hear their arguments, but to me the arguments just don’t seem very valid,” he said of the opposition after the meeting.
Elizabeth Hahn was among those who spoke during the meeting about making transgender students feel welcomed and supported. She is a member of Waterloo Listens, a local civic organization.
“I can’t imagine what it must be like for the students in this school to walk by and see dozens of their peers lined up because they make them feel unsafe or uncomfortable,” Hahn said in an interview. “They’re just trying to be themselves. As much as they want to say this is about a privacy or a safety issue, this is about showing respect and empathy to a marginalized group.”
What's next in Waterloo bathroom discussion
The atmosphere has been tense at school since the protest, Mazdra said. He thinks transgender students are afraid to speak out at a forum like a school board meeting.
The district plans to seek more feedback from students and parents. Charron said it will likely take the form of a survey.
Waterloo Listens is also planning a community discussion about how to support LGBTQ students and adults. The event will take place at 6:30 p.m. Friday at Philomena and Ruth, Hahn’s clothing store in Waterloo.
Meanwhile, Bond County attorney Tom DeVore has said he plans to look into the district’s bathroom policy.
“I fully intend on analyzing this legal issue to see what we can do about it,” he wrote in a social media post over the weekend.
DeVore has gained attention in Illinois for filing lawsuits seeking to end state COVID-19 regulations and for his unsuccessful campaign to replace Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul.
It is not clear exactly what started the controversy about an existing Waterloo District 5 policy eight months into the school year.
Charron said some parents had posted on Facebook that they were upset and encouraged students to protest. Mazdra said during Monday’s meeting he thought it all stemmed from a petition started by a student as a joke.
Lexi Cortes is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.