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Protesters target first gender-neutral bathroom in LA school district

Jose Lara, dean of students, held a sign from the campaign for gender-neutral restrooms.
Jose Lara, dean of students, held a sign from the campaign for gender-neutral restrooms. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

WASHINGTON — Students at Santee Education Complex, a high school in Los Angeles, thought they were settling a fraught debate in the simplest terms possible. Their campaign, launched this January, upheld a disarming message: ‘‘It’s Just a Toilet.’’

Led by the Gay Straight Alliance on campus, they advocated for a multi-stall, gender-neutral restroom — the first in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest school district in the country. With a petition boasting over 700 signatures, they succeeded, and the bathroom was officially opened last week.

‘‘All-Gender Restroom,’’ read a new sign on the second floor. Student activists rejoiced. ‘‘We just need to pee,’’ they had said, and now they could, comfortably.

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Then the real trouble started. Despite majority support for the restroom within the school, some adults condemned it, and took their bullhorns to the school. Standing across the street from Santee on Tuesday, protesters held signs that declared ‘‘Homo Sex Is Sin.’’ Video shows a man dressed in all black yelling into a loudspeaker: ‘‘You’re going to burn in hell, Santee. Oh, yes.’’

A school police officer told the Associated Press the protesters belong to Westboro Baptist Church, notorious for its anti-gay stance and demonstrations across the country. The Kansas organization is known for anti-gay picketing at military funerals.

Angered by the demonstration, some students ‘‘engaged’’ the protesters, authorities from the Los Angeles School Police Department said. Students confronted protesters and began throwing fruit and water bottles. A brawl ensued.

One student was briefly detained by police, school officials told the Los Angeles Times, but no one was charged or cited. No one was injured.

‘‘I stood on the sidelines and cried,’’ Kween Robinson, a student in the Gay Straight Alliance, told the Los Angeles Times.

The protesters indicated online that they would return to the school Wednesday. Seeing this, former Santee teacher Ron Gochez organized a counter-rally with the San Diego-based Union del Barrio political group, pledging support for the students, the Times reported.

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No protesters turned up Wednesday. Santee was instead the host of a peace rally, at which students waved rainbow flags and carried signs that read ‘‘Keep Calm, It’s Just a Toilet.’’

Santee’s principal, Martin Gomez, expressed pride for his students’ campaign, describing them as ‘‘trailblazers.’’

‘‘Yesterday, a small group of adults unsuccessfully attempted to discredit the brave actions of our students by protesting against the school’s recently approved gender-neutral restrooms,’’ Gomez said in a statement. ‘‘Above all, we want to ensure the safety of our students despite outside factors and influencers.’’

Robinson was heartened by the support from Gomez and Union del Barrio.

‘‘Santee is poppin’,’’ she told the Times. ‘‘I love this. That’s all you need in life — people to help you fight against your oppressors.’’

According to the newspaper, parents have expressed concern about how students will be protected from sexual harassment and bullying in the new bathroom. Alliance faculty adviser Jose Lara said students have joked about ‘‘making babies’’ there.

But school officials pointed out that bullying and harassment can occur in any bathroom. A texting hot line has been established for students to notify staff of misconduct.