During June, Wilton Public Schools‘ secondary schools, Middlebrook Middle School and Wilton High School, each celebrated Pride Month. To find out more about what happens in the district during Pride, GOOD Morning Wilton spoke with the three faculty members most involved with making sure students who are part of the LGBTQIA+ community feel safe and accepted in school: Kim Zemo, the Safe School Climate Coordinator for the entire district; Kathy Weiss, a social worker at WHS who is the advisor for the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance Club, and Heather Schlitz, a physical education teacher and advisor of the Middlebrook GSA.
We also talked to four Middlebrook students who have been part of the newly formed Middlebrook GSA. They spoke with the permission of their parents.
GOOD Morning Wilton: Thank you all very much for talking with me today. I’d like to start by asking each of you to talk about how long you’ve been with the district and what it is you’re doing in general at your particular school about LGBTQIA awareness and support? I’d also love to know how things have changed since you’ve been in Wilton.
Kathy Weiss: Sure. So I’m going into my 20th year. I was at Middlebrook for 14 of the years, and now six years at the high school, always as a social worker. Prior to working at Middlebrook, I used to work for Mid-Fairfield Child Guidance Center and ran their off-site Wilton mental health center in town.
I do feel like the community has shifted over the years. I’ve been here since 1997 and have seen, I think, a huge shift, in many different ways. It’s significantly different than it was.
In terms of the high school, there was a GSA [Gay Straight Alliance] that was started prior to my coming here. And then I think the attendance dropped for a little bit. Kim [Zemo] was in my role prior to me stepping into this and she was instrumental in re-energizing the GSA at the high school.
Heather Schlitz: I’ve been at Middlebrook for 15 years? 17 years? Within Wilton, I’ve done a lot of things; I’ve coached varsity athletics, I’ve run clubs, I’ve created clubs, after-school activities, WEB [Where Everyone Belongs] leadership, the whole nine yards.
Kathy and Kim and I had been talking about, we need to get [a GSA] at Middlebrook. We were able to finally come together this year and say, all right, this is the year, let’s do this. Kathy gave us a really good outline of how things started at the high school and we basically followed suit. Our primary goal was just to get some visibility out there and have Pride be said a few times around [Middlebrook], it was more than anything in the past. I think we’ve definitely hit that nail on the head, and next year we’re looking to build off of that and get student input and see where this goes.
GMW: Kathy, is there still a GSA at the high school? What function does GSA serve and what goes on in the high school, throughout the year and then particularly for Pride month?
Kathy Weiss: The club was restarted in 2016-2017. The membership took a dip for a while and then [WHS teacher] Scott Durkee started to build it when a group of students came forward and [said], ‘Let’s do this again.’ So their first few meetings were just publicizing and getting students involved in making it a safe place, an inclusive club for anyone, whether they’re an ally or part of the community within themselves or just wanting to promote inclusion within the high school.
In the last couple of years, it was more on the smaller end of the student body participating in it. I volunteered with the group for that first year and felt like we needed to increase visibility, that it just wasn’t that visible.
So they made posters and the first couple of years we put out information to the faculty to support Pride month by buying a t-shirt and we gave the dates that as a faculty we would wear the ‘Love is Love.’ We did that for a couple of years.
[During that time], Kim was able to bring speakers for the faculty to talk about just LBGTQ in general, because we have a population in our community and how [faculty] are able to communicate with them and pronouns and just generally understanding that community.
Up until this year, it was the ‘Gay-Straight Alliance Club.’ Then this year a number of the students wanted to switch the name to ‘Gender Sexuality Awareness’ because they felt like it was more inclusive, although we didn’t formally change it. We kept the ‘GSA’ the same, fitting a lot of students’ needs.
Last year was the first year we decided for Pride month, in addition to the faculty wearing the shirts, we wanted to get ribbons and stickers and hand them out to the students on June 1st, for anyone who wanted them, whether it was staff or students. They blew through them, it was unbelievable. Kids were so excited. We gave out ribbons and stickers for any faculty who wanted — if they wanted to do that, that would be great. And that was well-received.
We started the year with 20-plus members. It was unbelievable — we publicized it, we put up posters. The kids were very, very excited. They wanted to start a gender-neutral bathroom, which we have, that’s going to get the signage that goes along with that. So we were able to do that.
The students were able to just share in the beginning of the year and connect with their own personal experiences — again, a really inclusive environment where kids could talk about what it felt like to be a part of this community at the high school.
This year we handed out stickers again, we got a ‘Wilton Pride’ t-shirt that was specific to Warrior Pride, which a couple of students who are seniors really wanted to make that happen, so we helped them do that. Faculty continued to wear the shirts on June 1 and June 8. The last two years we’ve also had quotes that are read in the morning announcements from famous important leaders of the LGBTQ community. We also send out information to our GSA students about other neighboring communities that are having Pride parades or Pride events if they want to participate.
This year, between Heather and Kim and me, we did want to bring the GSA to Middlebrook. We thought it would be helpful to have just some visibility at the middle school level, that it’s also a safe, inclusive environment. That was one of our goals for this year.
Heather Schlitz: We started off just word of mouth and we had about a dozen kids. By the time we had our last meeting, we had up to 26 kids and they could have met more this year. So I anticipate we’ll only grow next year.
We also handed out the ribbons and the stickers and blew through a thousand of them.
GOOD Morning Wilton: Wow! Did teachers have t-shirts also at Middlebrook?
Heather Schlitz: Yes. We were able to coordinate with Kathy’s efforts at the high school and identify Wednesdays in June — obviously, you can wear Pride gear any day, but that would be the day that we’d try to do it collectively as a community. A lot of teachers ended up purchasing the t-shirt that the high school kids created, and some of them went out and just purchased regular Pride gear without the Warrior.
We had a lot of participation, and the kids felt very supported. When they first came into the media center where we had our meeting, it took a good 20 minutes just to get them to stop giggling and talking — they were just so happy to be in one place with people they have something in common with and feel safe. It was just so amazing to see that and be a part of that.
GOOD Morning Wilton: Because things are so new in a way at Middlebrook, how is it being taken in not just by the 26 kids who are taking part in the GSA, but more widely amongst the student body, and then beyond that — how have the Middlebrook families reacted?
Heather Schlitz: I think overall it’s been going really well. Even the students that didn’t participate in the club have strongly come out to support the LGBTQ community with the ribbons, then the stickers — regardless of whether they’ve come to a club or not. We have kids that are trying to take on more of an upstander role and talk back to that kind of negativity that is common. It’s nice to start to see that. You hear people correcting each other when using certain words. I even had a teacher email me, it was feedback that a student had given on a piece of paper and said, ‘I want to go back and correct a pronoun, I think this person goes by a different pronoun.’
You didn’t see those sorts of things a lot in the past, so the fact that they’re happening now, they’re being shared, they’re being celebrated. This is exactly where we want to be. I noticed that the community at large asks a lot of questions here at Middlebrook. I think there’s a lot of educating that still needs to be done, from a curriculum level — and maybe families discussing this at home. But yes, I think awareness is out there. Acceptance is large. And some education needs to fill in the blanks.
GOOD Morning Wilton: I know that there are families that think Middlebrook and that middle school age group is not an appropriate time to be talking about gender and sexuality differences, they’d prefer the discussion to happen at home. What is it that you say to parents, and how does the school handle it when they get that feedback?
Heather Schlitz: Well, coming from a physical education/health standpoint, I can tell you it’s part of the state curriculum. So part of what going to a public school entails is being taught things about human sexuality and gender. Of course, there’s age-appropriate content at each level. But those are things that need to be said. That would be my immediate reaction.
And then just from being a member of the community, I would say that things work better when we address them. And the less we talk about things, the more conflict we create around them. Forget about just the curriculum aspects of this, to have the discussion and have it be said is helpful in moving anything from point A to point B.
Kathy Weiss: One of the ways that I think was helpful, when initially we began the discussion with Heather and some of the other faculty, my high school kids wanted to talk to the middle school kids. They wanted to show them and demonstrate and participate and support the students at the middle school level to say, ‘It’s okay, you’re not going to be bullied at the high school. You’re not going to be targeted. It’s okay to be who you want to be. And there’s a community where you can feel supported.’
That was one of the most amazing things, just watching some of our high school kids be able to communicate with the middle school kids and really mentor them. It was wonderful, which becomes such a protective factor. Because we know that when kids are struggling with trying to figure all that out, they’re at such greater risk for suicide and depression. So that message becomes such a protective factor for students.
GOOD Morning Wilton: Are you hearing that from the kids? What gives you the sense that this has had a significant impact for them?
Kathy Weiss: When you think, ‘Strike when the iron’s hot,’ this year was hot. A number of those kids were saying how they struggled at the middle school level because they weren’t able to talk about it. They didn’t feel there was an avenue for those students to be able to communicate some of the struggles, questions, thoughts that they were having around LGBTQ, whether they were an ally or whether they were struggling themselves.
This year, it was such a perfect time to be able to facilitate that engagement — just [promoting] visibility, no more than hanging a sign up saying, ‘This is a safe place to talk.’
Some of the high school kids have been more open to sharing their transition or sharing their thoughts. They definitely struggled, the increase in anxiety, the increase in depression. In the last four years it’s been a real shift. Before it was much more secretive, and think about how that affects your sense of your-esteem when you can’t accept who you are because you don’t feel like your peer group is accepting of you or the greater community. That’s going to intensify some depression, anxiety. That’s what I was hearing.
It’s been a good time to promote this. It might not be for everyone. I can respect that. Some people feel very strongly about one end of the spectrum or not, but that for the ones who are kind of in the midst of it, I really wanted to be like, this is safe. We can talk about this information.
GOOD Morning Wilton: On a parallel track, there’s a group of parents who have become more vocal and active and organized around being parents of kids who identify as LGBTQ+ or supporting LGBTQ+ rights. There’s been an effort to get the town to actively embrace the community, whether it’s by flying a flag over Town Hall or putting up a banner, or what they’re doing in the business community with the Girl Scouts getting businesses to display rainbow Pride decals and decorations.
They’ve focused on how other towns have made proclamations or declared Pride Month, organized events, like in Norwalk, Ridgefield, Westport. The Norwalk Board of Education just issued a proclamation supporting Pride and the queer community — making a statement of official support. Wilton isn’t there yet.
Kim Zemo: We want this to be sustainable. So, I think to be sustainable, we need to move in steps and we need to continue to bring people on. And we’ll get there — but we’re not necessarily there yet.
You know, we get so caught up in where other towns are and I feel like, let’s focus on where we’re moving. And, where we are is that we’re creating more safety and more avenues for kids to feel like they belong, which is what we need to practice across the district for all sorts of things, not just this area. But certainly, it’s so critical that everybody feels a part of the community. So we can collaborate and work together, move forward. I’m confident we’ll get there. We’ve got great people working on raising awareness.
GOOD Morning Wilton: What else do you want the community to know about what’s happening in the schools?
Heather Schlitz: I guess one thing that I’m curious about is, moving forward as we bring awareness to things, there’s going to be good and bad that come from it. That’s just part of any endeavor. So I’m curious to see how conversations may be handled on the Board of Education level when it pertains to the health curriculum or even the history curriculum.
Kathy Weiss: Maybe this is such a cliche, but I feel like the train has left the station. And I don’t want the kids to be shut down in any way. Slowly and surely, the community — everyone, the school, the Board of Education, the Finance committee, everyone’s gonna get on board because I think it’s already gone and the train’s on its path. And that’s just in the United States in general.
So I want to make sure that the students here at the high school, if they feel safe and included, they’re going to be able to access their education in a much broader, bigger way. So if I can play my small part in passing out ribbons and wearing t-shirts and having signs up and facilitating this group, and now working with the middle school in terms of having this be presented as a unified front… I’m all for it. I just think that I am someone who respects and supports people’s beliefs. So I’m not about forcing someone to believe something that they don’t believe. But I am 100% a champion and an ally for anyone who wants to have a safe place and to have a conversation about who they are as a human.
Charlotte Halliwell, Annabelle Shultz, Reagan Hurley and McKenna Rooney have just finished their seventh-grade year at Middlebrook Middle School. GMW interviewed them about their project to raise awareness about Pride and LGBTQ+ inclusion in Wilton, as part of their Girl Scout Silver Award effort. They also have been involved in the new Middlebrook GSA Club, which had just started to form in the last month or two before school ended, laying the groundwork for next year.
GOOD Morning Wilton: What been happening with the GSA Club at Middlebrook?
Annabelle Shultz: When it first opened, I wasn’t expecting a lot of people to join, but there are quite a few people who are joining the club. It’s also not just one grade, there’s sixth graders and seventh and eighth graders. Because it’s sort of the end of the year, we haven’t been able to do much but from how this year, when we start it up next year it’s going to go good.
We haven’t had any, like, interference where people were joining us as a joke.
GOOD Morning Wilton: That’s good. That’s something that didn’t even cross my mind that people would do that.
Annabelle Shultz: I heard people talk about doing that.
GOOD Morning Wilton: Why do you think it’s an important thing for there to be a GSA in middle school?
Annabelle Shultz: In middle school, it’s important because it’s not like there aren’t people in middle school who actually are part of the LGBTQ community, and [there] are allies and [they] want the support. I know in my grade people who are part of the LGBTQ community and it feels good to be represented by in having it in middle school.
I heard what people were saying when we were talking about starting up the GSA in middle school, like, ‘Oh, they’re too young, they shouldn’t be having this here.’ But I don’t agree with that at all. I think it’s very important.
GOOD Morning Wilton: I’m sure it hasn’t always been easy in middle school, things people say and the conversations aren’t always positive and reaffirming. Does the school handle that well? Do other kids jump in [as allies] and is there support from other kids? What happens in that kind of situation?
Charlotte Halliwell: When we first thought about bringing up [having a GSA] with the school, it was thought more of as a like a political opinion, more than an actual thing that people are.
So at first it was a little bit more rocky at the beginning, but now that we’re here, it’s actually in the school and we have a whole like thing in this school — we’re selling items and we have a whole club now.
McKenna Rooney: One of the people in one of my classes, he started the club and … I think they meet a couple days a week. If you’re straight or an ally or if you’re a part of the LGBTQ community, they’ll just chat. I know that the school is a lot more like accepting with it now. There were items at lunch, like they were doing at stickers and whatever with the [Pride] flag on it.
Reagan Hurley: The beginning of this week, they were selling things, like flags and stuff. And there were a lot of people in the school wearing pins and stuff, which, I don’t really know how to describe it. Just like, I was kind of happy to see that happening, like there was like people that were wearing like many colors and just supporting because it’s Pride Month.
Annabelle Shultz: But also a thing that happened during lunch, there were a bunch of people walking up to get ribbons, it almost seemed like as a joke, just to have one look at it. And it was disappointing to see a bunch swarm and kind of grab the ribbons and stickers and laugh at them. That’s also what happened.
GOOD Morning Wilton: If you could, what would you say to kids like that who think it’s a joke, who grab the stickers and laugh? And what do you want to tell the parents who might say that middle school is not the place for a GSA or that conversation to be happening — ore they don’t want their kids involved in that discussion? What would you say to parents in that case?
Charlotte Halliwell: To the parents who don’t want to talk to their children, it is an important thing for kids to learn about, because if they’re hidden away from it and if they may just be a part of it, it might be harder for them to actually accept themselves and see themselves as a part of it. They might just kind of push it back instead of actually accepting themselves.
I think that’s a problem a lot of people overlook — self-acceptance for them to actually want to come out with other people. I think that parents who don’t want their children to learn about it, it’s an important thing they should learn about in school so they can actually understand.
Reagan Hurley: To the people that think it’s a joke. I just kind of find it disheartening that they don’t really recognize that there are people that actually have this as part of their identity and their life. And it’s just making fun of people. It’s a really big group. They should just acknowledge that, what if they were part of the LGBTQ+ community and people were doing this to them. It makes people feel unwelcome and they’re in the wrong when they’re absolutely not.
And for the parents who think that middle schoolers shouldn’t be talking about this or thinking about it, it’s kind of better to think about this when you’re younger, because then you’ll be able to understand yourself for a longer period of time. It’s a good time to be thinking about it too because you just are discovering yourself and really, there’s no ‘right’ time to start thinking about this type of stuff or talking about it even.