Emails shed light on Worcester sex ed lobbying

Mullaney says she wasn’t a backroom operator

THE WORCESTER SCHOOL COMMITTEE recently failed to adopt a new sexual education curriculum, and emails unearthed by Worcester Magazine point to one reason why.

The magazine, using emails gathered through a public records request, traced how Mary Mullaney, a socially conservative former school committee member, lobbied key figures in the decision-making process, including Superintendent Maureen Binienda. The state’s open meeting law is designed to push deliberations by municipal officials into the public view, but the emails showed how plugged-in and motivated residents can make their opinions heard – and possibly adhered to – through more private channels.

“That’s not how we’re supposed to govern, and we’re not going to be able to govern when you have a process like that,” said Dante Comparetto, a school committee member. He said the original sex ed proposal, called Making Proud Choices, was “sabotaged before we even had any public comment.”

For her part, Mullaney said on Monday that she hadn’t read the Worcester Magazine article, but she disputed the premise that she is a backroom operator.

“I got involved in this in a very public way. There were no behind-closed-doors meetings or etcetera. I sent emails to public officials, including the superintendent,” Mullaney said in a phone interview. “I signed my name. I did not write anonymously. They know who I am. I made my case. And by the way, at that very same time, dozens, if not hundreds, of other people were writing similar emails, or were writing emails from the other side of the fence.”

Mullaney said she thought the Making Proud Choices curriculum was offensive in what she described as its casual treatment towards sexual behavior among children. Published by ETR, Making Proud Choices promotes positive attitudes towards condoms and confidence in how to use them in order to reduce unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases, according to the organization’s website.

“The community obviously didn’t want this or this whole thing wouldn’t have blown up the way it did. They didn’t take the temperature of the community and realize there are a lot of people who live here that don’t agree with that other opinion,” Mullaney said. “There’s a lot of products out there that they could look at and buy, and I’m not there to stand in the way of a reasonable alternative, but Making Proud Choices was just in my opinion very unreasonable.”

One comment Mullaney emailed to Binienda that was unearthed by Worcester Magazine has received particular attention.

“You know better than anyone in Worcester — because you are the REAL thing when it comes to urban kids — that these children are spiritually and psychologically impoverished, neglected, abused. They need love, guidance, support, alternatives to the crap they see around them,” Mullaney wrote last September. “Condoms will not save their souls. I am not sure if they will even help their bodies as they are too young to use them well, but I know for sure that condoms will not heal their soul or solve the loneliness in their hearts.”

Mullaney, who was on the school committee from 1993 to 2011, allowed that she might have sounded “moralizing and preachy,” but she said she didn’t expect anyone besides Binienda to read the email.

“I was being somewhat poetic and metaphorical,” Mullaney said in the phone interview. “A lot of our children come from very troubled backgrounds, and what they need from the school department, what they need from us, is nurturing love and support.”

Last September, Binienda withdrew consideration of the Making Proud Choices curriculum that had been recommended by a task force. In addition to emails from Mullaney opposing the curriculum, Brian O’Connell, a current school committee member, circulated a scathing memo critical of the curriculum for grades 6-8.

Questioning the appropriateness of the curriculum for Muslim students in particular, O’Connell said it lacked words of caution about the emotional impact of sex, and “essentially exposes all students to truly vivid instructions in sexual activity when they are ages 11-13 – either still in elementary school or in middle school.”

Later in the year, as some in Worcester rallied behind another sex ed curriculum called the Michigan Model for Health, Mullaney emailed O’Connell that she had “almost threatened to run again” as she was lobbying another school committee member to her side; she advised O’Connell about preventing the Michigan proposal from going before the full committee, saying that “could easily turn into a circus;” and she secured a meeting with Mayor Joe Petty, who is chairman of the school committee, according to Worcester Magazine. In February, Petty announced he would pull the Michigan Model from consideration.

Unable to reach consensus, the district is now without a modern sex ed curriculum providing instructions for how teachers should educate their students on the subject of sexual health. District officials are awaiting guidance from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, according to a school district administration official. The statewide framework for health and sex ed curriculums was last updated in 1999 and the department hopes to have a draft of the new guidance ready for public comment by this fall. Binienda did not respond to an emailed request for an interview on Tuesday.

The whole episode was concerning to Rep. James O’Day, a West Boylston Democrat who represents part of Worcester and has sponsored legislation that would standardize how sex ed can be taught in Massachusetts.

“I was disappointed that behind-the-scenes activity took away what I think is a very democratic process of letting people at least have an opportunity to debate the curriculum that was being discussed,” said O’Day, who has a background as a social worker.

Meet the Author

Andy Metzger

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

Sex ed in the Bay State’s second largest city is “primarily abstinence-based,” according to O’Day, who said that the youths of today need instruction on a host of sexually related issues, including gender identity, affirmative consent, and how to extract oneself from an unhealthy relationship.

“All of those issues are being left off the table when we don’t have this more deeply inclusive sex education curriculum,” O’Day said.