Gender and sexuality spark emotional debate in Haddam-Killingworth schools

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HADDAM/KILLINGWORTH – About 70 parents, students and community members dressed in rainbow colors filled the college auditorium on Tuesday to support LGBTQ students and school staff teaching a curriculum that includes gender identity and sexual orientation.

The show comes in response to a recent petition and complaints from parents targeting the new state-mandated health curriculum, which includes a lesson on sexual orientation and gender identity in eighth grade. Parents have also expressed concerns about a school club that supports LGBTQ students.

The local debate is part of a larger national struggle over appropriate school curricula and school library books, on a variety of topics including history, gender, race and sexuality.

During the Tuesday evening board meeting, several students and parents spoke about their own experiences and the experiences of their children as gay or transgender students in the district.

“Coming to terms with my sexuality has been an incredibly isolating experience,” said Julia Thelen, a high school student who identifies as a lesbian.

Thelen said she knew she was a lesbian when she was 10.

“I have struggled with my sexuality for eight years now. And the gender and sexuality lesson could have prevented years of self-hatred,” she said.

Brandon Iovene, a former student who graduated from Haddam-Killingworth High School in 2018, who identifies as gay, said he suffered “ruthless bullying”, “harassment” and “threats” during his time in the district .

“I wish I had the kind of support [the Gay-Straight Alliance] and a more inclusive program during my stay in HK. An education and understanding that my true identity was not something to be feared might have saved me years of suffocation,” he told the board.

A parent, Andrea Gaines, said her daughter felt extremely uncomfortable being asked about sexual orientation and gender. She told council members that her child had been given forms to fill out asking him about his sexual preferences and gender.

“She had her head down the whole lesson and didn’t fill out the paperwork. Neither the guidance counselor nor the teacher contacted her at the end of the lesson to make sure she was okay. She told me she wanted to leave the classroom during the lesson, but she didn’t want to disrespect her teachers,” Gaines said at the January meeting.

Jessica Gersz, also a parent in the district, told the meeting that she felt teaching children about gender and sexuality in middle school was “a bit inappropriate” and expressed concern that children were learning these subjects without parental permission.

An online petition opposing a “radical pro-transgender movement” in the neighborhood also garnered 45 signatures.

Superintendent Jeffrey Wihbey told CT Examiner that the parents’ concerns relate to an 8th grade lesson given in October. Wihbey said that as part of the state of Connecticut new health programwhich was implemented in June, schools must teach a lesson on gender identity and sexual orientation to 8th graders.

“The one thing I can’t repeat louder is that we don’t do our own curriculum here, we just follow state curriculum standards,” Wihbey told CT Examiner.

Wihbey said the district will provide parents with a way to remove their children from the gender and sexuality lesson, which the state allows. He emphasized the need for partnership and communication between the district and parents.

“Human growth and development and sexuality can be controversial and our most successful teaching with the cooperation and partnership of our parents and families,” Wihbey said at Tuesday’s meeting. “It is important to offer our families some choice on these matters to respect the parameters of this partnership.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, Wihbey said he met with several students who were “nervous and upset” about statements made at a school board meeting in January.

“That’s something we don’t want to have here in Regional School District 17,” he said.

A school club

A Gay-Straight Alliance – a college club that supports LGBTQ students – has also drawn ire from some parents, who question its place at school and student participation without parental consent.

Shannon Johnson, a district parent and candidate in the last board of education election, said at the board’s January meeting that she doesn’t believe there should be an LGBTQ+ club on campus and called on the district to fire the councilors who ran the club. She also called for books dealing with sexual orientation to be removed from the school library.

“If you refuse to remove the filthy books and mean staff that allow this to happen on this campus, you are in fact child abusers by being complicit. Lack of action makes you complicit in child abuse,” Johnson said.

Council chair Suzanne Sack said it was ‘the last time’ such remarks would be allowed at a council meeting.

“The school board’s good nature and willingness to hear all community concerns is being exploited by the few, and only the few, but the impact this has is disrupting our meetings and our school system,” a- she declared.

Wihbey told CT Examiner that students were supposed to get parental permission to join school clubs, but students sometimes attend club meetings when it meets during their “flexible” time of the school day.

“I think there was a little glitch in the process where the kids showed up at the club,” Wihbey said.

Wihbley told the board that there were no plans to end the Gay-Straight Alliance.

Sack urged parents and community members to refrain from gossip, politics and efforts to pressure or coerce the Board of Education. She emphasized the need for trust within the district and the community.

“The overwhelming sentiment in the many letters and calls the school board has received recently is how wonderful our children are. How important it is that we take care of each one of them, especially the most fragile ones. And how great our school staff have been doing it for years and decades,” Sack said.

“Caught in the Crosshairs”

Mark Degnan, whose wife, Rebecca, is a college counselor, told CT Examiner that he and his wife had “run the gamut” of emotions – from frustration to sadness that students were “caught up in the crosshairs” of adults. arguments.

“It hurts more than anything,” he said.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Degnan read a letter on behalf of her son, a high school sophomore who identifies as transgender. In the letter, her son said the club was one of the only places some LGBT students feel safe because they are not always accepted by their parents.

In the letter, Degnan’s son described harassment and name-calling for being transgender, and warned that adult behavior in the community filters down to affect how students treat their peers.

“When you adults show hate by speaking out against supporting LGBTQ kids, you’re also allowing other homophobic students to treat us like garbage.”

The sophomore praised his mother for doing everything she could to educate herself and advocate for LGBTQ+ students, saying she “saved her life”.

Donna Masotti, the mother of two former Haddam-Killingworth students, said she knows from her experiences with her own daughter that LGBT students need a place where they can feel safe.

“I’m the parent of a lesbian, and I’m proud of it. Proud of her,” Masotti said. “I know how difficult it was for her at the time.”

Erin Ortega, who has a daughter in Grade 8, said her daughter also had to take the health class and “didn’t think about it”.

“As a family, we openly talk about identity. It’s very important to us,” she told CT Examiner.

State Representative Christine Palm, D-Chester, spoke at the meeting, where she requested that the Board of Education not provide waivers to children at the request of their parents.

“It’s the very parents who want their children out of the game who need this kind of exposure and education the most,” Palm said.

“I don’t think fear and ignorance should drive the narrative,” she told CT Examiner.

Board Secretary Joel D’Angelo said on Tuesday the board had received 35 additional letters from community members, one expressing “concern” about the LGBTQ+ portion of the program and 32 in response. favor.

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