Race Relations in Waterloo

Chapter 3

Local Government

Waterloo Police Department

Bernal Koerhsen, Waterloo’s police chief, spoke to the Iowa Advisory Committee about race relations in the city and the general operation of the police department. He said that race relations have to be a high priority for his job. When he was first appointed chief of police, there were only two black male officers. Since that time he has hired 16 minority officers, including 11 blacks, two Asian Americans, two Hispanics, and one Native American.[1]

Mr. Koerhsen said that prior to his arrival as police chief, the police department had “some contentious times with the African American community.”[2] He added:

One of the things I’ve done to reach out to our community is to have my own talk show on the African American community broadcasting KBBG.

I have a half-hour call-in talk show every month scheduled. It’s rebroadcast several times a week. People can call in, ask me questions, and I certainly take my share of heat. That’s my job. That’s what citizens pay me to do. I think it’s a very good dialogue for people to anonymously call up the police chief publicly and bring questions about the enforcement of the laws.

We try hard to be firm, fair, and impartial in the enforcement of laws. We have a large African American community. We have a growing Hispanic community. We have a very small Native American community. But our community of interest is a new and growing community. The Bosnian community brings us challenges in language and communication that we’ve never had before. So we’re constantly faced with challenges.[3]

The Waterloo Police Department works with the Community Relations Service of the U.S. Department of Justice and professors from the University of Northern Iowa in developing avenues to improve race relations in the city.[4]

Waterloo School District

Arlis Swartzendruber, superintendent of the Waterloo school district, and two members of his staff, Bernard Cooper, director of student services, and Patrick Clancy, director of special education, spoke to the Advisory Committee about school operations. Dr. Swartzendruber reported that 23 percent of the district’s administrators are minority and 49 percent are female.[5] The district is also attempting to increase its number of minority teachers by utilizing the Minorities in Teaching Program at Wartburg College.[6]

Bernard Cooper told the Advisory Committee that he was recruited from a small black college in 1970 to work in the Waterloo school district.[7] He said:

The minority students have had some problems. I can speak of the senior class at East High right now. Of the top 20 graduates of that class, 12 of them are minorities, which speaks highly for this group of students.

But on the other end, the amount of dropouts that we have, the minorities are still 30 percent of the dropouts in the district. They [minority students] receive a large proportion of discipline referrals, which is not good in part. But when a student acts up in class, you have to discipline the student regardless of what race the student is.[8]

Patrick Clancy told the Committee that the district has 1,600 students in special education programs, 35 percent of whom are minorities. The minority population in the school district is also listed as 35 percent.[9] Mr. Clancy also spoke about the English as a Second Language (ESL) program. The influx of Bosnian refugees and Hispanic immigrants into the Waterloo community has had an impact on the school district. The number of ESL students has increased dramatically since 1996, when there were only 59 students enrolled in the program; by 1999 there were 700 students enrolled. Seventy-five percent of ESL students are Bosnian, while 24 percent are Hispanic. With the use of different languages and dialects, the ESL approach to learning in the Waterloo public schools is varied with many services available.[10] Mr. Clancy added:

We do not provide a bilingual English as a Second Language type of program. We do provide more of an immersion English as a Second Language program, but we do bridge that with native language interpreters. So we have native language interpreters, basically Bosnian people that are proficient in English as well as Serb, Croatian, and Spanish people that are proficient in Spanish as well as English that are bridging that gap as well.

We’re providing a wide variety of different kinds of services. In some elementaries it’s pretty much full inclusion type of services, where you probably have half of the primary English teachers alongside half of their second language peers learning together in that environment. In other places we have more than 17 types of ESL services, especially for those that are new to this community or new English language kind of instruction giving them a start in terms of more self-contained kinds of services and then building from there. And that then changes as you get into the high school, where we have more sheltered kinds of services because the needs are different in the high school setting.[11]

For those immigrant students enrolled in high school, the district has attempted to accelerate the learning process by administering tests in the student’s native language.[12] The length of stay for a student in the language program varies depending on the student’s language assessment.[13]

Mr. Clancy further stated:

We do use the last language assessment skill as an indicator of students’ readiness to comprehend and move into a more integrated setting. But it’s only one instrument that we use. Basically, teacher referral and observational type of data is put together. But when they show the readiness to really be a bigger part of the community of the school, we’re moving them fairly quickly into that.[14]

Waterloo Commission on Human Rights

Walter Reed, executive director of the Waterloo Commission on Human Rights, said that the agency has been in existence since 1965.[15] He told the Advisory Committee that the commission has three functions: assist with enforcement of local civil rights laws; mediate complaints; and provide education outreach to try to bring people together to work on race relations issues.[16] The commission is governed by 10 commissioners appointed by the mayor and city council. There are four paid staff members: the director, two investigators, and an administrative secretary.[17]

Mr. Reed is proud of the commission’s “Chat and Chew” program. He said:

This is a service under our education outreach program where a complainant or someone who feels that they have been treated unfair can come into our office. We then try to informally set up a meeting with the parties involved and to come up with some solution. It’s an informal complaint, and many citizens in Waterloo opt to use that, and we’ve been able to bring many people together because of a miscommunication.

We’ve been able to resolve a lot of situations through this Chat and Chew. For example, it’s the Christmas season, and you have shoppers out at the mall, and sometimes these people get stopped by mall security officers. Some security officers think that these persons may have shoplifted, but in fact the persons did not shoplift. That can cause quite a stir.

We’ve been able to meet with the mall managers, for example, and talk this issue out and then help the persons who feel they’ve been treated unfair to understand the role of mall security officers. We’ve looked at statistics, etc., and we haven’t found any discrimination in that area.[18]

Mr. Reed told the Advisory Committee that in recent years, the commission has introduced “Study Circles” to the city—an initiative to bring people together to discuss race relations.[19] He said:

One of my colleagues said to me that Waterloo had become comfortable with its racism, and that really bothered me a lot. So I decided along with the others that we would put race on the table and have a nice, healthy discussion about race, and then we could move on to other areas, because ultimately down the road somewhere, whether we talk about diversity appreciation, whatever, race is a factor.

How can Bosnian people, Hispanic people come to this community and know nothing about African American people and decide they don’t want to live next to us or live in our neighborhoods? Those are race issues, and so we need to put that on the table. I think we’ve done that, and we’re having some real healthy discussions.[20]

Mr. Reed added that at the end of the Study Circles, which last about five weeks, the commission sponsors an “Ethnic Bus Tour.”[21] The purpose of the tour is to showcase Waterloo’s diversity. He said:

We visit a Muslim mosque, a Jewish synagogue, and the site of the African American museum that we’re trying to build. We also visited a local owed and operated radio station that’s black owned and operated. So we take people around to see these sites.

We’re excited that just a couple of months ago we had the first tour for youth. This was from Waverly, Iowa, which is about 20 miles or so from here and predominantly all white. Their kids wanted to see some of this diversity, so we provided our first bus tour for students.[22]

Mr. Reed also related to the Advisory Committee some problems facing Waterloo in terms of economic development for minority businesses. He said:

We don’t have enough minority businesses on Main Street or in the mall. There’s very little support. There’s a lot of verbiage about it, but when you get down to the real numbers, there’s not very much going on there, and I believe economic development is probably the last frontier dealing with racial discrimination and other inequities in our community because we have sufficient laws on the book that deal with the other areas.[23]

[1] Bernal Koerhsen, statement before the Iowa Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, community forum, Waterloo, IA, Dec. 20–21, 1999, transcript, p. 172 (hereafter cited as Transcript).

[2] Ibid., p. 174.

[3] Ibid., pp. 174–75.

[4] Ibid., p. 175.

[5] Arlis Swartzendruber, Transcript, p. 210.

[6] Ibid., p. 216.

[7] Bernard Cooper, Transcript, p. 217.

[8] Ibid., p. 218.

[9] Patrick Clancy, Transcript, p. 223.

[10] Ibid., pp. 224–25.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., p. 230.

[13] Ibid., p. 232.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Walter Reed, Transcript, p. 243.

[16] Ibid., pp. 244–46.

[17] Ibid., pp. 243–44.

[18] Ibid., pp. 245–46.

[19] Ibid., p. 247.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., p. 253.

[22] Ibid., pp. 253–54.

[23] Ibid., pp. 256–57.