Debate stirs over WHS restroom use

Pictured is the line of students waiting for the nurse’s restroom as part of Friday’s protest at Waterloo High School.

A student protest over the presence of transgender students using Waterloo High School restrooms prompted much heated conversation over the weekend as well as a letter from the district and heavy attendance at a monthly school board meeting.

The situation began Friday morning when a large number of students began to form a line outside of the nurse’s single-occupancy bathroom.

WHS student Michael Donjon reached out to the Republic-Times during the protest. Donjon said he and a number of other students had organized the protest as transgender boys had been using the boys’ bathroom.

“For a little while now there have been a lot of issues happening at the school where we have been having women enter the men’s restrooms,” Donjon said. “And what’s been happening this morning is we kind of organized on this half day that we would all sort of skip class and use the nurse’s restroom, which is a single-use restroom, to prevent seeing any women in the restroom.”

The protest saw roughly 150 students participate, with a number of students posting pictures of the protest online.

Friday afternoon, a letter was sent to all district parents from Waterloo Superintendent of Schools Brian Charron in response to the high number of calls the district and high school office had received regarding accommodations for transgender students.

In the letter, Charron, having consulted the district’s legal counsel, expressed the district’s policies to accommodate transgender students weren’t established by any individual administrator but were instead put in place due to legal requirements placed upon the school district.

He specifically pointed to the Illinois Human Rights Act, which says transgender students “have rights associated with the gender in which they identify.”

This aspect of the Illinois Human Rights Act was recently affirmed in the 2021 case Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. v. Meggan Sommerville.

Charron also pointed to Illinois State Board of Education guidance on the treatment of transgender students from 2020 as well as President Biden’s 2021 executive order concerning Title IX’s application toward transgender students.

He added he recognized the Waterloo community is likely divided by the aforementioned legal requirements, also saying the district is working with its attorneys in developing future policies on transgender student accommodations.

Charron went on to address the protest earlier that day, commenting on the “disruption” it caused.

“When biologically male high school students came forward and stated they were uncomfortable with biological female students using male restrooms, we told those students they could use the nurse’s office restroom,” Charron wrote. “It was an effort to support those students’ comfort, but unfortunately, it resulted in a disruption. The male students planned to use the nurse’s office restroom at the same time, resulting in a line. This line grew dramatically throughout the day with male and female students, filling the hallway and causing students to be tardy to or miss classes.”

Charron further added that this was not the appropriate way to send a message to the district, and school officials would be investigating the behavior as planned harassment of transgender students.

He went on to say further such disruptions would not be tolerated, and students attempting to repeat Friday’s protest would be disciplined for the organization of the disruption.

Charron also spoke to the possible consideration of the protest as harassment, also noting he was aware of “disparaging comments about transgender students” made by a number of parents and students.

The letter concluded by acknowledging the “controversial and divisive” nature of transgender issues in schools, adding the district’s actions are driven by “our attempts to comply with the law and provide a school environment that is supportive to all students.”

The Republic-Times reached out to two transgender boys at the school for additional perspective on what the protest and school culture had been like for them.

One boy, Leo Ramseur, said this was his first school year at WHS following a recent move. He said that within the school, staff tended to be far more welcome and accepting of his identity than other students.

Leo added the atmosphere in the school – which he said was previously fine save for some occasional rude comments from peers – seemed to change over the past few weeks.

He said that, in that time, he had started to use the boys’ bathrooms. Leo said he previously used to not go to the bathroom at school.

Leo and a friend of his, he said, had begun to use the “buddy system” when going to the bathroom, and that was when bullying seemed to intensify, with some students calling them “f—–s.”

“They would just call us queer slurs,” Leo said. “They would tell us that girls don’t belong in the guys’ bathroom. They would tell us that the women’s bathroom is the next door over. I had my stall door shaken one time, and just really verbal stuff, like they asked us where our genitalia was and they told us to, like, whip out our genitalia to prove that we were ‘real men,’ and just a lot of verbal harassment in the bathrooms every single time we would go in there.”

He also said he had heard students threatening to block trans students’ cars in the parking lot, which prompted him to stay for a few minutes after the end of school Friday.

Leo went on to speak about the “mob mentality” of the situation. He said the situation seemed to stem from a lack of understanding.

Leo’s mother Kate Ramseur also spoke about the situation. She said the family has had a lot of positive interactions in the community, with things being mostly good until now.

She remarked on some concerns expressed by students and many adults in the district who had shared their thoughts online over the weekend.

“I think my question back to anyone who says ‘I don’t feel safe with a transgender boy in the bathroom with me,’ my question would be ‘Why is that?’” Kate said. “Are you really feeling unsafe, or is it a talking point that you’ve heard?”

She further spoke on the matter, saying of her son, “He’s not doing anything to harm anyone, but somehow his very existence feels like a threat to some people, and it’s very sad. It’s terribly sad.”

Kate and Leo also mentioned how Leo had stayed home from school Monday as Kate had heard about a repeat protest planned for the day.

Another transgender boy at WHS, who asked to remain anonymous, said he hasn’t experienced any particularly major verbal altercations in the bathroom, though he often gets a “hard stare” from those who see him exit the bathroom and has had his stall shaken.

He said more transgender students have been using their correct gender bathroom recently, which seems to have caused a stir among other students.

“Sometimes high school students just need something to hate,” he said. “Recently, it’s been me and others. I feel like it’s happening now because of… the growing population of trans students in the restroom, and people may overlook one trans student, but the more frequent, the more people notice.”

He added he understands the discomfort of cisgender students and wishes for a gender neutral bathroom so everyone can be more comfortable.

He also said the difficulty experienced at the school has grown significantly in the wake of Friday’s protest, with rumors started about him.

He further noted “it is absurd how much of a problem some people have with myself and others using the restroom in a stall.”

The Waterloo School Board’s regular monthly meeting was scheduled for Monday, and the public portion of the meeting was moved to the auditorium to accommodate a substantial crowd that turned out to express opinions or hear from the board.

At the beginning of the public participation item on the agenda, Charron introduced the district’s legal representation, Stephanie Jones, who went on to conduct the public participation.

The first of many to speak was Jonathan Elder, who introduced himself as a father in the district with a graduate and a boy currently at the high school.

“I’m here out of love. I’m here out of my love for the youth of this community,” Elder said. “This is in no way a stand against the LGBTQ of this community, of the students that are here. This is just to seek a common sense solution to a problem that is concerning a lot of other students.”

He added the youth are “fully known and fully loved” by their creator.

Elder, who received a great deal of vocal support from much of the crowd, expressed his concerns about “biological females” using the boys’ bathroom.

A particular concern from him was the district’s preparedness for potential false accusations of rape that could be made in the situation.

He added that segregated bathrooms exist not because of gender but genitalia, saying the system should be “penises in one room and vaginas in the other.”

He suggested designating a unisex bathroom and installing single occupancy stalls in all units.

Elder also remarked on the apparent fact some students’ concerns weren’t heeded, further commenting negatively on the letter sent to parents.

“I want to address the threats that were made as punishment of harassment to the students who decided to point out the lunacy of what they were being asked to do,” Elder said.

Pictured are attendees of Monday’s school board meeting in the Waterloo High School auditorium.

Others present at the meeting shared similar sentiments to Elder, with some expressing concern over various aspects of the district’s letter – particularly the parts concerning harassment – with many suggesting the email could have simply been left out.

Others spoke in support of the students who had participated in the protest on Friday, with a broad consensus being negativity toward the district’s policy and handling of the situation.

Several parents beside Elder also spoke in support of their students, insisting that these students’ concerns be acknowledged.

A number of adults also spoke in support of the queer students at WHS, with Elizabeth Hahn of Waterloo Listens sharing a pre-prepared speech in which she thanked the board for attempting to comply with state and federal laws regarding transgender accommodations.

Hahn also spoke about the vulnerability of queer youth, citing 2022 research from the Trevor Project in saying “45 percent of these youth considered attempting suicide in the past year.”

“Transgender students and adults in school and other public places are simply trying to find a safe place to fulfill a basic biological need,” Hahn said. “Restricting bathroom accessibility for trans people restricts their ability to exist in public. We hope the district will be able to resolve the logistical bathroom problem pragmatically and empathetically.”

Another speaker identified himself as a WHS grad who was previously homeschooled.

He spoke about his experience having been assaulted by other boys when his underwear was pulled down in the locker room and he was further bullied, ultimately stating that a divided system didn’t work to protect him.

Several students also spoke at the meeting, with one student identifying as a queer ally and member of the WHS Diversity Club saying he has never felt uncomfortable in the bathroom with a transgender student.

Several students who had participated in the protest also spoke, including Donjon, who shared his previously expressed concerns, also remarking on students using “over-sexualized terms” to describe themselves, though he did not offer any specifics.

One female student, a freshman named Ashley, said she wants everyone to feel safe, but expressed her frustration with the high school and district’s handling of the situation.

“I would just like to say that the incident on Friday, I would like to know how our choices we made to make that line in front of the nurse’s office, when me and a group of students went into Costello’s office and asked her what we could do to change that, and she told us to use the nurse’s office, and that’s what we did, and now we are being punished for that,” Ashley said.

Other comments from students centered around privacy concerns and feeling comfortable in school bathrooms.

No transgender students spoke at Monday’s meeting.

Waterloo Listens is planning an event in support of LGBTQ students and adults at 6:30 p.m. Friday at Philomena and Ruth, 118 W. Mill Street.

Also, attorney Tom DeVore – who ran unsuccessfully for Illinois Attorney General – has taken interest in the situation at WHS.

“I’ve read the arrogant and pompous letter the Waterloo superintendent sent to the parents of children who are not comfortable using a restroom with another student of the opposite sex,” DeVore wrote in a Facebook post.  “I fully intend on analyzing this legal issue to see what we can do about it. In the meantime, if any child is harassed by this superintendent who thinks he’s a tough guy for bullying children, give me a call.”

The school board sent a letter to parents of the district early Wednesday evening following input gathered during Monday’s school board meeting. Read more by clicking here.

Pictured, parents and students gather outside of WHS prior to the start of classes Monday morning for a prayer meeting.
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Andrew Unverferth

HTC web