SPECIAL REPORT: Sexual Assault in Wilton–A Conversation with School Officials

As part of today’s special series, “Sexual Assault in Wilton,” GOOD Morning Wilton editor Heather Borden Herve sat down to interview key representatives from Wilton Public Schools:  Dr. Kevin Smith, superintendent; Dr. Chuck Smith, assistant superintendent for curriculum; Kim Zemo, safe school climate coordinator; Donald Schels, Wilton High School assistant principal; and Kelly Holtz, K-12 instructional Leader for health and physical education.

Before this interview, all five individuals had the chance to read the first person account at the center of today’s special report, written by a former WHS student and published today. Led by Superintendent Smith, they welcomed the opportunity to have the conversation–and to encourage more discussion in the community on the subject.

GOOD Morning Wilton:  The student is very clear that the events she describes did not happen at the school. It was not while she was under school supervision. It was not during school time or anything like that. But she does say in the context of this, “The school let me down.” When you read it, what did you think about that?

Kevin Smith:  My first reaction was incredible sadness for the student, for the event. It’s tragic. It should have never happened. It just called me back to the fact that there’s always more that we could do to help educate our students and our families.

As well, it raised again the importance of the need for this conversation to be had, not just internally in our schools, but with all of our parents and families, because there are so many dimensions and variables that contributed to this incident, to the sexual assault taking place.

GMW:  The former student points it out–so many events go hand in hand with alcohol and drug use. She very clearly says about sexual assault and drug and alcohol abuse, “Our town turns a blind eye to the underlying problems at our high school and this absolutely has to change.”

Kelly Holtz:  I’m proud of her for having a voice and for feeling that she can say that and speak to the town. What they learn in school or what’s available through curriculum and all the discussions we have–around substance use, abuse, safety outside of school, safety inside school, what could happen when people are under the influence–it sounds like she used some of that education to realize where that’s happening. So she has the knowledge, she understands that this is a problem outside, and I’m proud of her for making it known that it’s outside of school; it’s bigger.

GMW:  This month is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. There are activities and organizations within the school, on the student level, and at the town level, of people who are working on this. For people who are not directly involved with the school, can you say what programs are happening in the school to raise awareness of the message even more and to address what can happen?

Kim Zemo:  We have a chapter of Teen PeaceWorks, which is a student organization that runs out of the Domestic Violence Task Force in local schools. Those students are trying to raise awareness around these very issues [during] Domestic Violence Awareness Month in October; and they do activities as well in April when it’s Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month as well.

But they’re up against the wave of, this isn’t comfortable to talk about or look at, so it’s a lot of effort in putting those messages out there in people’s vision to begin to talk about it. I applaud her for coming forward because I think this is only going to foster that conversation that so many of us find it hard to go there and talk about.

Teen PeaceWorks is a small group of kids, but those kids are really dedicated to the work. But it’s a challenge in raising awareness and being sensitive to kids that may be experiencing, whether it’s domestic violence in their home or in some type of unhealthy relationship, because the messaging can feel in their face when they’re struggling with issues, yet we want to raise awareness. So it’s a balance of how you do that in a high school and get adolescents’ attention in the right way.

GMW:  I’m sure it’s a very fine line that has to be walked too, because I can only imagine what it’s going to be like here the day this story runs–the kind of ripples and waves that this will cause both within the high school community and outside.  How do you prepare for that?

Kevin Smith:  Certainly it’s going to raise questions. It may trigger others who have had an experience but haven’t shared it. So certainly all of our teachers and our mental health staff need to be and will be prepared to respond.

More broadly, it’s raising a conversation and we have to be open to having a conversation, as uncomfortable as it is. And it’s not a school conversation, this is a community conversation. When we talk about where and when these kinds of events happen, that’s the community piece. All of us need to hold a mirror up to our behaviors and take a look at the broad culture in which we’re raising our kids, and are we doing everything we ought to be doing to protect and promote the safety of our children? And that means on Friday nights after football games, over the weekend.

Kids deserve appropriate trust as they get older, but should we be leaving kids in houses unsupervised? Those are particular people that have to answer those questions, but the question has to be asked.

Don Schels:  Our mission statement encourages us to help kids–when they’re developmentally able–engage with the world beyond the school, in all its candor–the wonderful and terrible candor. When this discussion unfolds, the hope that we had at the high school was that it could become a platform for a teachable moment and we could ask questions about the things that are in our control.

The questions that came to my mind immediately are, how are we socializing young boys? And how are we supporting a culture that allows reporters to report when they need to and feel supported about reporting?

I think we have an apparatus in place to have those conversations, and they’re difficult, but they’re very important. And for us to stop and look out of this pain about what’s in our control and how we can respond to it, is really, really, really important.

The only concern I have is, I also want to have the proper respect for the victim. I think that means acknowledging that none of us has the moral authority to exonerate the wrongdoer; only the victim has that right. So for me to take a stance that the perpetrator lacked a guilty mind, but for the blind spots in a curriculum somewhere, I think would be disrespectful to the victim and would create an exoneration that only the victim can offer.

But that caveat aside, I think it’s important for us to address those two questions and think about the mechanisms we have that could move that. We have a lot of mechanisms in place that help us socialize young boys. We have athletics, we have our curriculum that exposes kids to the experience of people who have been disenfranchised; they’re marginalized, they’re oppressed. We have clubs, we have activities and we also have similar mechanisms to help talk about how we support reporters.

So I would double down on those two areas. I’m only one voice, but I have the support of a large team. How are we socializing young boys? Can I partner with coaches and with teachers and with the community and with the clergy and make sure we’re socializing young boys properly? And then how can we support victims when they need to report?

GMW:  When you talk about helping victims when they report in the school, how does the school handle that when a student says, “I haven’t gone to my parents. I haven’t gone to the police,” or whatever the scenario is. When someone comes and says, “I need to talk to you about something like this,” what happens? What’s the process? How does that go?

Kim Zemo:  Well, if it’s [reported to] a teacher, they’ll bring the student to an adult professional or a counselor to begin to support them through. The most important thing is to make sure that they’re well aware that they’re supported emotionally, that they’re well aware of what their rights are. And we help students through that process.

We’ll bring in the school resource officer if necessary to talk with [the student] about what their rights are, without pushing the reporting. And of course, work with the student to inform the parent.

We also need to make sure that we’re clear on the statutory laws and do we have a [unclear] within the ages and all that; that’s critical to make sure what reporting channels we need to do, but all in the process of supporting the student through that. And it can take some time in helping them get ready to share with their family and we can put the right supports in place.

GMW:  Schools are responsible for so much, on so many levels, from state mandates to things like this, there is this burden, fair or not, on the schools, and there’s a responsibility to play this role. You think these kinds of conversations happen at home, but having them in the school, that’s a big part of it.

Kevin Smith:  You’re absolutely right. There are many and different examples of the way that through state statute or otherwise, schools have assumed responsibilities for teaching and educating beyond the three R’s. That’s a reality of today. I don’t think anyone in this room or anyone in our system would shy away from that. That’s the reality.

The question is, as part of our goal to always be better, is to what extent are we doing this now? To what extent are we doing it well? Where are the areas that need to be examined. And what components might be missing that may be more meaningful for students in their own judicative process? That’s a very natural cycle for us to engage in. We do engage in it.

We can talk about that with specific regard to sex abuse awareness and prevention and sex education in general now. But these conversations are happening as we speak, independent of this one student’s trauma.

GMW:  Let’s talk about curriculum and what kind of topics are talked about, and how often? What is the health curriculum like? in high school and in Middlebrook as well? How does the curriculum address, not just this topic of sexual violence, but in general, sexuality, consent, gender identification, things like that?

Kelly Holtz:  Students are introduced to resources and the Center for Sexual Assault Crisis Counseling [‘The Center’], the school resource officer, and the DVCC [Domestic Violence Crisis Center] representatives, starting in 6th grade. Through our health education curriculum, 6th, 7th, and 8th grade, and through their life guidance curriculum, that’s where these conversations are happening.

Everything is based on National Health Education standards and then, just new as of May 2016, we have specific standards that link sexual health and sexual assault prevention and awareness standards together. That’s where the lessons are generated from.

The students do have health from 6th grade to 12th grade and every year we have The Center come in with an educator that specifically highlights things like consent–what does consent actually mean? What are definitional terms? What happens if there’s a report made? Who will support you? In many cases, the educators say,’It could be me. Now you know me. Now you have a face to it. I’ll help you through anything.’

Phone numbers are put out. They get flyers. It’s really just for the students to feel like they would know, understand the process, [recognize] a face of somebody who might be helpful. Especially for a school resource officer who we have a very close relationship with. He’s in here discussing anything from safety in your home, what happens if a party happens, who arrives, or the messaging that goes out about if a parent is home or not. Just general safety to what happens if something does go down. Do you dial 911, do you call the police? Do you kind of go off to the side? So lots of strategies are shared around just being safe in general, and of course, anything that has to do with substances or relationships or anybody being at risk are brought up there. So that happens grades 6 through 12.

We have our detailed curriculum and topics. Assessments, what the teacher’s looking for, or how do I know the child understood what was happening during the lesson. And that happens from 6 to 12.

Kim Zemo:  May I add something that I probably should’ve said on the response side. The Center for Sexual Assault Crisis Counseling will provide counselors to come to the school, so if there is a student that reports, we can bring the counselors in to work with the student confidentially for as long as necessary. It’s their expertise. Not that our staff can’t support, but to give the student the expertise that they need.

Kelly Holtz:  The Center counselors make it very clear that they’re available and they can meet off site, on site, where the school ends and they begin, or how we work together. So we try to offer that as much as possible.

We also have actually, Capt. Robert Cipolla [of the Wilton Police Department] comes in as part of the DVCC task force and does presentations on how the media portrays inter-partner violence and what that means. And then anything from again, statutes, laws, and then what actually happens when it comes down to people. So the students all know him. He’s been coming into 10th grade classes, all the adolescent health classes for the last two years. So they can put a face to who might be their helpful person, aside from any of the people they have connections with in the school building.

Oftentimes, students will come out when there is a presentation like that where they’ll just ask to talk to Officer Ross on the side and we’ll get them to the appropriate people.

Kim Zemo:  And Kelly is good about giving mental health staff a head up, to say, ‘We’re going to cover this topic [in class], so we may need to send students.

Kelly Holtz:  So if a student ends up in the guidance counselor’s office upset, they kind of maybe know where it comes from, or if students just have extra questions, maybe counselors will be more available.

GMW:  In the last year with the #MeToo movement and recently with the senate confirmation hearings, there’s been an increase in reporting sexual assault to national crisis call lines. Has the school seen any kind of increased discussion or reporting or anything like that?

Kim Zemo:  It’s hard to say because we haven’t been diligent about keeping data, so we don’t have really a comparison. I think some students are feeling comfortable enough to report in school. I trust that our team is doing a really good job of supporting them. We can do a better job of promoting how to report and putting that out there. I see what colleges do in terms of some of the posters and things that they have and so we’re looking at some ideas of how to remind students.

GMW:  Well even now with school safety and the reporting that the kids are able to do–

Kevin Smith:  Gaggle Speak Up.

Kim Zemo:  We want to encourage them always [to report] face to face, but it’s there if that can’t happen, or even when it’s anonymous in terms. We want students to know that we’re here, but it’s kind of a last resort–but necessary in some cases.

Don Schels:  We’re just trying to research all the resources that are out there in the community and partner with the schools. I have become involved with the Domestic Violence Crisis Center, and under Kevin and Chuck’s leadership, I was asked a while ago now to just look at the curriculum they offer, before any of this happened. Now we have an unhappy coincidence that makes it more urgent, of course. Before any of this happen, try and figure out what they could offer our school. And their project is a little bit different from the Sexual Assault Crisis Center, but there’s a lot of overlap. And they have a lot of really important services that they can bring into schools. And one of my hopes is to try to create more vibrant connections between actually all the schools in Fairfield County at least, and the DVCC. So that we can get preventative and educational materials into the schools. And it’s something that we’re looking at right now. And that could be important, too.

Kim Zemo:  The Domestic Violence Task Force is recipient of the Women’s Club grant last year. So Kelly and I have been working on some other curriculums as well, some of it targeted to train the trainers model, and targeted to boys. So we’re excited to have that opportunity as well.

GMW:  With the district website improvements, so much of the schools’ curriculum in all areas is available online. This curriculum is online as well, I assume? So that parents can see what kind of things are being discussed? Maybe even how they can continue conversation at home and it’s available online.

Kelly Holtz:  That’s what teachers have started to do, for example, if a specific unit is about to happen, “These are some topics for parents,” maybe. It’s always brought up at back to school nights and even saying, “Parents if you would like to come in with your child, you’re welcome to.

GMW:  Kids will love that, won’t they? [laughs]

Kelly Holtz:  We say that often, kind of smiling with the students, “Feel free to have somebody come with you.” But we want it to be that conversational piece. And not only just specific to this, but even when kids are showing general concern over how kids are speaking to one another or how someone’s responding to somebody’s opinion in class. I mean, they’re generally concerned with each other, so sometimes it will just come up like that. And then we can kind of get to the bottom of what actually happened.

But just teaching them, being assertive, or when to come forward, or how to gently navigate through a difficult conversation–these are all the bigger, broader lessons that are happening across our curriculum, not just in health education. But it goes from the general to the very specific, sexual assault. And so I think it should be noted too that self esteem and how you carry yourself and how you speak to people, how you act in general, it’s something to learn about in terms of everything.

Some of that happened when the hearings were happening and kids were just talking about it, and kids would just show concern over the commentary. So many teachers stopped and just gave that the moment that it needed.

GMW:  Just to clarify, there’s no state-mandated curriculum in this area per se for Connecticut right?

Kelly Holtz:  There’s not a state curriculum; there are the state mandates that speak to the standards and the performance indicators that we’re to work to. We’re able to, which I think is great, take from programs that make sense for our students and for what we feel the needs are, we can pick and choose.

Chuck Smith:  In 2016, it was a requirement that we need now to explicitly teach about sexual assault and prevention.

Kelly Holtz:  Yes. It was more explicit, it was always there and we had lessons beforehand. It was just- we want to make sure you are doing it. It helped us have The Center to still continue to come in.

Chuck Smith:  The Center worked with the state education department to develop those standards. That’s why we felt bringing The Center directly in was the best thing to do.

The thing that I struggle with, this is a unique area, right? We can teach kids the standards. We can’t really have them practice it.

So I do believe the students are receiving the information they need and I think they have the knowledge. The problem is what happens in the situation where they have to practice that knowledge.

Kevin Smith:  Or when they are impaired.

Chuck Smith:  When I read the former student’s account of what happened, the question I asked myself is, “We do all of these things. What more can we do to empower them to show good judgment in those situations?” Because, again, we can’t have them practice it and give them feedback. We can in other areas. I don’t know how, as a community, we can have that conversation about it. We can always do more. We have some good ideas about doing more. I’m still concerned, in the situation, how do we help kids to access that knowledge?

I don’t think that’s necessarily just a school thing. We have to partner with families.

Kevin Smith:  That’s right. And when you talk about, what are our to do’s, I think there’s some strong consideration that needs to be given to:  What are the frank conversations and information that we can share with parents as they are encountering their children, growing and being exposed to unsupervised parties where drugs and alcohol are available or what have you?

Chuck Smith:  I wonder if [participating in] Survivor Stories would help? I had offered to this [former] student. I don’t know if she’s ready, but to come back and explain. I’m sure she knew that what she was doing wasn’t appropriate. I know she knows that drinking isn’t appropriate but she did it. Maybe, students hearing her walk through what happened might help them to make better choices.

GMW:  When this comes out, when parents read this, what do you think that they could and should do? Where do we go from here?

Kevin Smith:  I’m going to answer as a father of two young daughters and three young sons. As a parent I want to know where my kids are and who else is there, when I’m not around, and whether they are age 9 or 19, that’s what I want to know. And then I want to know what else is in the environment and let the conversation go from there. And I guess, beyond that, verify that what they are telling me is accurate.

For all parents, we need to hold up the mirror. What are we saying and doing in our families that may inadvertently give permission to drink, to, you know, pick something? Is that what we want? Is that the message we want our kids to have? I think beyond that, I’d also like to know what other resources are available in the community, what’s happening in the curriculum and what questions do I have and who do I go to to answer their questions?

Chuck Smith:  I wonder how many families have actually had conversations around this topic? It’s not a comfortable conversation to have–I just wonder if there is some explicit discussions about what expectations are? I have a feeling that they’re not discussing these things as explicitly as they should be.

Kim Zemo:  You have to start young. When it’s developmentally appropriate, but young. It’s too late in some circumstances. Not that you shouldn’t ever start the conversation but if when it’s developmentally appropriate, talking about the definitions.

Chuck Smith:  I wonder if we can support that, to have those kind of conversations. To say, “Now is the time to start talking about this.”

Don Schels:  Yes, so it’s not made taboo. Having a strong belief that if a child has the wherewithal to ask a question or perceive a problem, then we have a responsibility, in a developmentally appropriate way, help them find the answer and talk it through instead of feeling that it is taboo or off limits, which our sensibilities can do to us just because we’re sensitive people, but to have that in mind. If the child can perceive the problem or experience the problem, then it’s appropriate grounds for investigation, I think, is a good maxim for us all to have in the community.

GMW:  As parents may start to broach these conversations, if they haven’t already, are there resources, in terms of where they can turn–whether it is the school, Wilton Social Services, Wilton Youth Council? The school and the Youth Council have been doing even more every year to bring in really incredible speakers and presentations. Are there resources that you would recommend in this particular case–The Center, the Domestic Violence Task Force here in Wilton; are there other resources as well? Anything else that you might want to provide to parents that they can access or can look to?

Kim Zemo:  I think the Domestic Violence Crisis Center as well as the Sexual Assault Crisis Center has a lot of the resources on their website so I would wade through there. We’re in the process of uploading our parent resource page. I know there’s a lot of stuff around school safety. I do think we have some stuff on sexual assault but I will double check that.

Kevin Smith:  I’m going to say, call Kim Zemo because she can serve, certainly as a support first, but also as a clearing house for information. She’s about as well equipped as anybody I’ve ever met to name and identify resources and to make connections on behalf of families so if people are desperate and they need a person and a name, that’s it.

Kim Zemo:  Wilton Social Services is a great resource. And they have a website to use as well.

GMW:  Anything else that you want as part of this?

Kevin Smith:  Thank you for raising the story. It’s uncomfortable and I think it is heart-breaking, the circumstances that got us to this conversation. Let’s hope that we can continue it.

Chuck Smith:  We’re all open to ideas anybody has about how we could get through to our kids.

To read all the stories in today’s series, follow these links:

SPECIAL REPORT: “I Was Sexually Assaulted by a WHS Classmate”

SPECIAL REPORT: Sexual Assault in Wilton–A Conversation with School Officials

SPECIAL REPORT: Sexual Assault in Wilton–A Conversation with Wilton Police

SPECIAL REPORT:  Sexual Assault in Wilton–Resources

If you or someone you care about has experienced a sexual assault, there are resources for assistance, including the National Sexual Assault Hotline 800.656.HOPE (800.656.4673) or the RAINN website. Locally, there is counseling, advocacy and victim support available from The Center (for Sexual Assault Crisis Counseling and Education) which has a hotline 203.329.2929 to help victims, or people who suspect someone they know has been abused or the victim of sexual violence. Wilton Police can be reached at 203.834.6260.