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 auditorium at the middle school on Tuesday in support of LGBTQ students and school staff teaching a curriculum that includes gender identity and sexual orientation.

The showing comes in response to a recent petition and parent complaints taking aim at the new state-mandated health curriculum which includes a lesson about sexual orientation and gender identity in eighth grade. Parents also voiced concerns about a school club supportive of LGBTQ students.

The local debate is part of broader national struggle regarding 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 was an incredibly isolating experience,” said Julia Thelen, a senior at the high school who identifies as a lesbian.

Thelen said she knew she was lesbian at the age of 10. 

“I’ve struggled with my sexuality for eight years now. And the lesson on gender and sexuality 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 that he experienced “ruthless bullying,” “harassment” and “threats” during his time in the district. 

“I wish I had the kind of support from [the Gay-Straight Alliance] and a more inclusive curriculum during my time at H-K. An education and understanding that my true identity was not something to be feared would have perhaps spared me from years of stifling myself,” he told the board.  

One parent, Andrea Gaines, said her daughter felt extremely uncomfortable being asked about sexual orientation and gender. She told board members that her child was given forms to fill out asking about her sexual preference and gender. 

“She had her head down the entire lesson, and did not fill out the papers. Neither the guidance counselor nor the teacher checked in with 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 did not want to be disrespectful to her teachers,” Gaines said at the January  meeting.

Jessica Gersz, also a parent in the district, said at the meeting that she felt that teaching children about gender and sexuality in middle school was “a little bit inappropriate” and expressed concern that children were being taught these topics without parental permission. 

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

Superintendent Jeffrey Wihbey told CT Examiner that the parental concerns involved an 8th grade lesson given in October. Wihbey said that, as part of the state of Connecticut’s new health curriculum, which was implemented in June, schools are expected to teach one lesson regarding gender identity and sexual orientation to students in the 8th grade.

“The one thing I can’t reiterate any louder is we’re not doing our own curriculum here, we’re just following the state curriculum standards,” Wihbey told CT Examiner. 

Wihbey said that the district would provide a way for parents to opt their children out of the lesson on gender and sexuality, something 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 successfully taught with the cooperation and partnership of our parents and families,” Wihbey said at the Tuesday meeting. “Extending some choice to our families on these topics is important in meeting the parameters of that partnership.”

At the Tuesday meeting, Wihbey said that he had met with several students who were “nervous and upset” about the statements made at a January Board of Education meeting.

“That is something that we do not want to have here in Regional School District 17,” he said. 

A school club

A Gay-Straight Alliance – a club in the middle school supportive of LGBTQ students – also raised the ire of some parents, who question its place in the school, and student participation without parental consent.

Shannon Johnson, a parent in the district and candidate in the last election for the Board of Education, said at the January meeting of the board that she did not believe there should be an LGBTQ+ club on campus, and called on the district to fire the counselors who led the club. She also called for the removal of books addressing sexual orientation from the school library. 

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

Board Chair Suzanne Sack said that it was “the last time” that those types of remarks would be allowed at a board meeting.

“The good nature of the Board of Education and its willingness to hear all community concerns is being taken advantage of by a few, and only a few, but the impact that is having is disrupting our meetings and our school system,” she said. 

Wihbey told CT Examiner that students were supposed to obtain parental permission to join school clubs, but that students would sometimes sit in on the club meetings when it met during their “flex” period in the school day. 

“I think there was a little bit of a hiccup in procedure where kids were dropping in on the club,” said Wihbey. 

Wihbley told the board there was no plan to discontinue the Gay-Straight Alliance.

Sack urged parents and members of the community to refrain from rumors, politicking and efforts to pressure or coerce the Board of Education. She pointed out the need for trust within the district and the community. 

“The overwhelming sentiment in the many letters and calls received most recently by the Board of Education is how wonderful our children are. How important it is that we care for all of them, especially the more fragile. And how well our school staff has done that for years and decades,” said Sack. 

“Caught in the crosshairs” 

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

“It hurts more than anything else,” he said.

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

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

“When you adults demonstrate hatred by speaking out against support for LGBTQ kids, you are giving permission to other homophobic students to treat us like garbage as well.” 

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

Donna Masotti, the parent of two former Haddam-Killingworth students, said that she knew from experiences with her own daughter the need for LGBT students to have a place where they could feel safe. 

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

Erin Ortega, who has a daughter in 8th grade, said that her daughter also had to take the health class and “didn’t think anything of it.”  

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

State Rep. Christine Palm, D-Chester, spoke at the meeting, where she requested that the Board of Education not provide an opt-out for children at the request of their parents.

“It is the very parents who want their kids not to participate, who most need this kind of exposure and education,” said Palm.

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

Board secretary Joel D’Angelo said on Tuesday that the board had received an additional 35 letters from community members, one expressing “concern” about the LGBTQ+ portion of the curriculum, and 32 in support.

Emilia Otte

Emilia Otte covers health and education for the Connecticut Examiner. In 2022 Otte was awarded "Rookie of the Year," by the New England Newspaper & Press Association.