Sutton School Committee Orders Audit After DragPerformance, School, EventControversy

Sutton School Committee calls for independent financial audit of Connections Conference, a social justice event, after controversy over drag performer and subsequent threats. The conference, financed by private donations, sparked debate among parents and residents on balancing diversity and inclusivity with concerns over extreme content.

Nitish Verma
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Sutton School Committee Orders Audit After DragPerformance, School, EventControversy

Sutton School Committee Orders Audit After DragPerformance, School, EventControversy

The Sutton School Committee has called for an independent financial audit into the Connections Conference, an annual social justice event at Sutton High School, following controversy over a drag performer's session and subsequent bomb threats and death threats against school officials.

Why this matters: This incident highlights the ongoing struggle for schools to balance promoting diversity and inclusivity with addressing the concerns of more conservative parents, and it raises questions about the limits of free speech and artistic expression in educational settings.

The Connections Conference, held on March 15, is a student-run event that focuses on social justice and has been running for five years. This year's event hosted 615 students from 56 high schools across New England and featured workshops, including a meet-and-greet with a New York Times bestselling children's author and a trans youth activist. One of the workshops, organized by Pride Worcester, featured a drag performer who danced and sang on top of a table, sparking concerns among some parents.

Following the conference, the school received at least two bomb threats and death threats were directed at school officials, including Principal Edward McCarthy. The School Committee had planned to address the conference at its regularly scheduled meeting on Monday, but the virtual portion of the meeting crashed due to high attendance, leading to a special hearing on Thursday.

At the four-hour special hearing, dozens of people directed comments at Principal McCarthy and the five-member school board. Some residents expressed concerns over the direction of the school system and the conference. John Sullivan, a parent, said, "I understand there are several touchy social issues in the world today ... these social issues can be taught in a way where we're not going to the extreme ends of the spectrum." He added, "I've never pushed my kids on my opinions or my beliefs. ... I will not accept they go to school and have the beliefs of others pushed upon them or be made to feel they're wrong if they disagree. These are my kids, not yours."

Others showed support for the event. Jen Heck, a Sutton resident, said, "I'm not worried that my kids seeing a drag queen is going to make them gay, just like I'm not worried about my kids seeing someone with a gun is going to make them a killer, or seeing someone with a doughnut is going to make them fat." Lindsay Wilk, another resident, said, "I've attended the conference three times, and it's always been a very energized day and wonderful for our students. These programs help to teach our kids that there are not acceptable things to be saying at school or anyplace else."

Principal McCarthy emphasized the benefits of the conference, apologized for any offense caused, and acknowledged that "three minutes of that presentation went a little bit too far." He stated, "To paint an entire conference, an entire group, an entire community because three minutes went a little beyond what we expected does a disservice to all the work that they do."

The School Committee passed a motion for an independent financial audit into the Connections Conference, at the request of many residents who spoke at the meeting. The conference is financed by private donations. Principal McCarthy hopes that the audit will address concerns and answer people's questions about the conference's finances and operations.