September 12, 2023
I’m a public school parent. I shouldn’t have to spend my time fighting these violent, bigoted extremists.
On August 22, a text popped up on my phone: “They made it here.” A terrified friend who works at Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) headquarters in downtown LA was pinging me, panicked about the members of the anti-LGBTQ Leave Our Kids Alone coalition (LOKA) who had gathered to march on an LAUSD board meeting.
Unbeknownst to her, I was on the scene, facing the LOKA members as bewildered school district employees looked on. I gazed down the hill, where a caravan of angry people wearing “Leave Our Kids Alone” T-shirts was stuck on the Third Street Bridge, unable to bypass a line of police, parents, United Teachers Los Angeles and SEIU members, and assorted LGBTQ activists. Stalled, unable to move, the group blasted Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” over and over again, as a few people half-heartedly swayed.
I texted back, “Nope. They didn’t make it to LAUSD.” Not this time, anyway.
As an LAUSD parent, my hope is that anti–public education, anti-LGBTQ groups will never breach the district’s inclusive walls, either literally or figuratively. However, I fear that not even Los Angeles will ultimately be able to withstand the so-called “parental rights” movement that targets LGBTQ families, school districts, and teachers—and that is spreading like wildfire across the country.
“Parental rights” groups like Moms for Liberty, which have deep ties to the GOP, are popping up at school boards across America, often with Proud Boys as their muscle, to seize political power under the guise of fighting LGBTQ “indoctrination” in schools. These “grassroots” groups are frequently assisted and trained by GOP stalwarts like Turning Point USA, the Heritage Foundation, and the Leadership Institute, as well as untaxed megachurches that function like PACs. The goal is the same old nonsense: to attack teachers’ unions, decimate public education, get vouchers for private and religious schools, and destroy anybody who departs from an ultra-conservative agenda.
LOKA, LA’s new local “parental rights” branch, made its first big public appearance on June 2 at Saticoy Elementary School. In the weeks leading up to Pride month, a handful of parents had begun a harassment campaign against school leaders for the perceived crime of planning to read The Great Big Book Of Families at a school-wide assembly. A Pride flag was burned, and a trans teacher fled the school in fear.
The day of the reading, I went with my fellow PTA and volunteer parents from local LAUSD schools close to Saticoy to go support the staff and the LGBTQ community. We arrived thinking that this could all be worked out, but when we rounded the corner, we realized we were wrong. A handful of Saticoy parents had called in an outside group of extremists, Glendale Unified School District Parents’ Voices (this detail was missed by mainstream media but oddly noted by conservative outlet RedState). Two hundred very angry men stood there ready to beat someone up. In the dozen years that my children have attended public schools, I’ve seen many angry parents. I’ve never seen people dressed in paramilitary gear carrying bear mace. (LAUSD board member Jackie Goldberg reportedly went through the crowd demanding, “Do you have kids here?!” Few did.)
One man got on the PA system, called us all “groomers” and said he wanted to “zip-tie the principal” and do violence to teachers, staff, and counterprotesters. After our group left, the extremists beat an unhoused man to the point of unresponsiveness. The protest at LAUSD’s headquarters was not only the next step in their fight but an escalation.
But the air of implied violence that surrounds these groups, while alarming, is not the most important aspect of the group. LOKA, for instance, is one tiny piece of a bigger puzzle. They partner with a myriad of other “parental rights” groups like SoCal Parent Advocates, Dad Army and Mom Army, GUSD Parents Voices, Turning Point–affiliated groups BLEXIT (Black Exit) and LEXIT (Latinos Exiting the Democratic Party), as well as Gays Against Groomers (which gained infamy this summer when it joined neo-Nazis to protest a pride event in Wisconsin.
These groups have worked hard to flip school boards to ensure that extremist candidates pass policies that may violate both California state law and the state constitution.
Well before a controversy hits Sacramento, the operatives on the ground deliver for the extremists on the boards. One prolific school board agitator has bragged on his social media, “Actually, I’ve been involved in 1 school district banning CRT, 3 districts banning (Pride flags), 2 districts enacting a parents bill of right, and 2 districts passing parental notification resolutions.” The anti-LGBTQ and anti-Black policies he’s referencing were adopted by school districts in Temecula, Chino Valley, Murietta, and Orange.
The “parental rights” groups attack Social and Emotional Learning (i.e., curriculum that fosters social skills) and the California health curriculum that protects kids and keeps them safe from child abuse and sex trafficking. They believe that schools that mention that LGBTQ people and families exist are “indoctrinating children.” They are not not. These are public schools funded by the public. LGBTQ families pay taxes like everyone else, and they are welcome in our community like everyone else.
Most controversially, the groups are demanding “parental rights” notification policies—essentially“forced outing” policies that require schools to out trans kids to parents, despite the fact that only a third of LGBTQ youth feel safe enough to come out to their families. (The state of California has sued one of the school districts trying to implement these policies.) It goes without saying that the people angrily demanding schools tell them if a child is trans are the last people who are safe to tell if a child is trans. Further, forced outing dismantles the special relationship between teachers and students, creating a hostile environment at school, the one place where an LGBTQ student may have felt safe.
As we saw this summer in a neighboring school district, Temecula Valley Unified School District, where the conservative evangelical board refused to give students textbooks because they mentioned seminal LGBTQ figure Harvey Milk, these efforts waste resources and can cost districts millions of dollars in lawsuits. They also waste time. Any parent volunteering for their child’s school events now must also volunteer to defend their schools from paramilitary groups.
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Involved parents know that there are many different ways to engage at schools, and thus many places where principals seek out feedback from active parents. Bringing an army of agitators made up of non-stakeholders from out of town to destroy rather than build is disgusting and not one of those ways.
It’s going to take all of us to stop this coordinated attempt to astroturf our school boards. If you hear someone refer to educators as “groomers” or say schools are “indoctrinating” children, know that is the dark-money funded “parental rights” movement. It is an attack on your public schools. It is an attempt to waste your tax money, steal from your classrooms, and stop your children from getting the best education they can get.
But sending astroturf groups to attack school boards is not just a way to flip the political makeup of the boards while attacking unions and schools. Seizing power at the local school board level by hammering districts on “teaching CRT” is what delivered a surprise victory for conservative Governor Glenn Youngkin in previously blue Virginia. The national GOP seems to be trying to replicate his success, albeit with an updated anti-LGBTQ angle.
Mobilizing a motley crew of homeschoolers, anti-vaxxers, and anti-maskers around “parental rights” is part of the lead-up for the 2024 election. This is Steve Bannon’s “precinct by precinct” strategy, an extremist reboot of the Reagan Revolution that utilizes the far right to knock on doors. The GOP believes that dismantling the public school system will give it a ground game in blue strongholds, a winning strategy.
The losers, of course, will be the children of the parents wearing the “Leave Our Kids Alone” T-shirts, who, when the dust settles, will be left with destroyed schools and communities. What teacher wants to push past 200 screaming men to go to work? How will principals attract talent in the midst of a nationwide teacher shortage? These parents will cling to the shiny promise of vouchers for religious and private schools, not realizing that if the GOP wanted to fund schools for all, it would have already done so. Instead, it sacrificed their children as pawns.
Daisy Gardner is a writer, showrunner, and public school parent whose children attend schools within the Los Angeles Unified School District. Her credits include Single Drunk Female, Silicon Valley, The Goldbergs, and 30 Rock.