As campaigns wind down for public offices across the state, one school board race in central Massachusetts has become a flashpoint over sex education in public schools.
First-time Worcester School Committee candidate Shanel Soucy garnered attention with her adamant opposition to the sex ed curriculum put in place by the district earlier this year, and attracted support from a conservative group with an anti-LGBTQ agenda. She has also become the face of a wider campaign urging parents to opt their children out of the school’s sex ed program.
Soucy, who is a certified electrician, is one of eight candidates on the ballot for six available seats. The visibility of her campaign and the opt out push has caused alarm in Worcester’s LGBTQ community, and on Tuesday, the Queer Coalition of Greater Worcester held a press conference to denounce alleged homophobic comments by Soucy that had been shared on social media.
Images of Facebook comments allegedly posted by Soucy's account last year read that she does not support “homosexual behavior,” and that, “[w]hether these behaviors come from demonic influence or the evils that lie in our own hearts, or both, is not up to me to decide for anyone else.”
At the press conference, which was held exactly a week before the election, the Queer Coalition’s Joshua Croke said Soucy neither cares for the LGBTQ community or about their humanity.
“The LGBTQ+ community includes students, parents and teachers in the Worcester Public School system, all of whom deserve the respect and support of school officials and access to information that is inclusive of their health and well-being,” Croke said.
In a Facebook Live video from Oct. 12, Soucy denied posting the comments. She claimed the messages had been falsified and distributed because she spoke out against the sex ed curriculum in the city.
“I find it offensive, not only to my campaign, but to the many, many deep, loving relationships I share with the LGBT community,” she said in the video.
In an interview with GBH News, Soucy said she would hope to replace the current sex ed with another curriculum, and that she’s the only candidate to oppose it.
“And so I think that’s definitely making me stand out quite a bit,” she said.
The larger fight over sex ed in Worcester goes back well past this May, when the school committee voted 5-2 to adopt a district-wide comprehensive sex ed curriculum known as Rights, Respect, Responsibility, or the 3Rs.
Cara Berg Powers, who ran unsuccessfully for Worcester school committee two years ago, has long advocated for a comprehensive sex ed program. The school committee rejected such a curriculum several years ago that, she says, was a response to a narrow segment of community concerns.
“And they just kept kind of just narrowing what might be possible and they ended up that year … landing on a curriculum that was not comprehensive, not LGBT-inclusive,” she said.
The adoption in May of the 3Rs curriculum was a major victory for advocates, who point to the city’s rate of teenage pregnancies and STDs as a need for better sexual health education. The curriculum specifically includes information about sexual orientation and gender identity and focuses on what it calls age-appropriate sexuality education. It also stresses that parents and caregivers are the primary educators for their children on matters of sexuality.
Opponents have honed in on Worcester and called the curriculum “pornographic” and explicit. The Massachusetts Family Institute has helped organize a grassroots campaign urging parents to opt their children out of the curriculum. The campaign uses t-shirts and lawn signs with the words “Opt Out” stylized in the same manner as the logo for the adult website PornHub.
The MFI is affiliated with the Family Research Council, a national conservative Christian organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center has identified as a hate group because of its anti-LGBTQ views.
While the MFI does not endorse political candidates due to its nonprofit status, it has closely aligned itself with Soucy and her campaign. Earlier this month, the group presented Soucy with a Citizenship Award, which is given to someone who demonstrates “commitment to our Judeo-Christian values.”
Soucy didn’t say much to GBH News about her connection with the group.
“If an organization wants to give me an award, I think that that organization has every right to do so,” she said.
Earlier this week, the Rev. Robert McManus, Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Worcester, also publicly urged parents to opt out of the curriculum.
“The Catholic Diocese of Worcester joined other community and religious groups which were interested in assuring that parents maintained their right to teach their children responsibly about sex,” McManus said in a statement to GBH News. “Whether the number of opt outs is high or low is a matter of opinion. More importantly, parents had the option available to them and clearly many felt it was important to exercise that option.”
The Worcester Telegram and Gazette reported that 2,970 students in Worcester Public Schools have opted out of the curriculum. That’s a little over 12 percent of the district’s student body, with most opt outs involving elementary school students. That appears to be a significantly higher percentage of opt outs than in other Massachusetts school districts. Concerns range from parents wanting to remain their children’s primary educators about sex, to what activists say is opposition to information about gender and sexuality being incorporated into the curriculum.
The success of the opt out campaign may be at odds with the state’s liberal reputation, but Joshua Croke from the Queer Coalition of Greater Worcester says there are a number of factors that have made Worcester a prime target for such a debate.
“Shanel’s candidacy, I think, for school committee here in Worcester was an opportunity for the 'opt out' campaign to amplify its efforts in association with a political campaign,” Croke said. “And, you know, as the second-largest and [a] significantly growing city in New England, I think the campaign would find Worcester as a significant success point if they were able to do significant damage to the adoption of comprehensive sex ed.”
With only eight people running for six seats, Cara Berg Powers believes Soucy is as viable as any of the other candidates. She has received support from the Central MA AFL-CIO and IBEW Local 103, buoying her credentials beyond just the sex ed issue. And, according to Powers, her campaign is in step with the well-known playbook of using hot-button topics to rile up conservative voters and scare moderates.
“You know, I’ve sort of joked with some of my friends that the sex ed stuff, the critical race theory stuff, the mask and vaccine stuff — the Venn diagram is a circle,” she said.
And although the majority of the city voted for Joe Biden in the presidential election, Powers is concerned about the combination of traditionally low voter turnout in local elections and the potential power of mobilizing voters around issues like sex ed.
“I’m really sad about the potential for what our election might say about a small segment of our electorate that has too much power,” she said. “But I’m trying not to be too disheartened about what it says about the city in general.”
For Soucy, getting people to opt out of the current sex ed curriculum has been its own victory.
“And I hope to see more parents engaging in many other ways, not just ‘opt out,’ but whatever ways they can to know and be a part of their kids’ education, I think it’s amazing,” she said.