While California is often viewed as an overwhelmingly progressive state, the reality is much more complicated.
Just as they’ve done in more conservative states, far-right activists and groups in California have launched a coordinated attack on school districts throughout the state, advocating for policies that aim to harm LGBTQ2S+ students in the name of “parental rights.” Accusing teachers and queer people of “grooming” and “indoctrinating” children, so-called “concerned parents” have turned school board meetings into chaotic and hostile affairs, and have held aggressive protests and rallies outside schools—some going as far as inviting far-right militias to show up and intimidate people.
In some school districts, conservatives’ demands to remove existing inclusive policies have been met, while others have even gone a step further. At least six school boards in California have passed parental notification policies, which require teachers to essentially out trans and non-binary students to their parents. These policies state that teachers have around three days to inform parents if a student requests to go by a different name or pronoun or asks to use bathrooms or locker rooms that don’t align with the gender they were assigned at birth.
The parents and activists pushing back against these policies are determined to expose the groups behind them. According to them, what’s happening in California schools is much bigger than the concerns of a few conservative parents.
Daisy Gardner, the mother of an LGBTQ2S+ child in the Los Angeles Unified School District, tells Xtra that she first got involved in this fight over the summer, after showing up to counter-protest a parents’ rights rally at Saticoy Elementary School. Gardner wanted to lend her support to the teachers, students and families being targeted by people who claimed to be concerned parents who were protesting against a Pride event for LGBTQ2S+ families at the school.
“The event that they were protesting was a reading of the book called The Great Big Book of Families, which has one line in it that’s like, ‘Kids come from all kinds of families,’” she says.
She recalls that protestors, convinced the assembly was somehow inappropriate, hurled all kinds of insults at the LGBTQ2S+ advocates and counter-protesters—calling them “groomers” and wearing shirts with messages like “Leave Our Kids Alone.” Eventually, violence broke out and an unhoused person caught in the crossfire was beaten unconscious. Out of the hundreds of protestors present, only a handful appeared to actually have children at the school.
“After Saticoy, I was like, ‘What the hell just happened? Who are these people?’” Gardner says. After doing some research, she found out that the group that was “called in” to protest the Saticoy event was Glendale Unified School District Parents’ Voices, which sometimes works with militia groups like the Proud Boys.
That’s when she began tracking this group’s activity and familiarizing herself with all of the key players.
Gardner, who regularly attends Los Angeles Unified school board meetings, as well as board meetings in other districts, says she sees the same people showing up to these meetings, and whatever information she gathers on them, she shares with a group of like-minded parents who have kids in various different school districts across Southern California.
“We’re all on a text chain, and we know each other because these people have all hit our school districts and we have reached out and looked for each other and … discovered that we’re all experiencing the same thing,” she says.
“I’ve felt personally terrified at school board meetings,” Gardner says, adding that there was at least one instance in which nearly 200 people were screaming “pedophile” and “groomer” at her.
According to Gardner, however, this crusade isn’t only being conducted by “boots on the ground” groups. Some organizations, like Parents Defending Education, are using legal complaints and right-leaning media to project their fear-mongering to a wider audience. In October, PDE added LAUSD’s Coming Out Day activities to their incident report, which supposedly documents “indoctrination” in schools.
Bree, who prefers to go by first name only and is an LGBTQ2S+ activist in Los Angeles County, says that they had never really paid attention to school board meetings until they came across a video on Instagram of someone advocating for a parental notification policy at a Glendora Unified school board meeting.
“I saw it and I was like, ‘Oh, this is not okay. This is really dangerous, actually,’” Bree tells Xtra. In response, they made a video of their own, warning people about the policy and encouraging them to speak out. “I didn’t think anybody would really see the video, but a lot of people did. We had several people show up at the next few school board meetings to speak up against the policy, which was really amazing.”
While they don’t have children at Glendora, they went to high school in the district and felt the need to take action. After their video proved successful, Bree started regularly attending school board meetings and speaking during public comments, and even started watching other school districts’ meetings online to “keep track” of everything. Much like Gardner, they started seeing “the same people showing up at different board meetings, saying the same talking points.”
Bree says Jennifer Kennedy, a lawyer and member of the international anti-trans group Our Duty, was among the outside activists who came to push the parental notification policy at Glendora, adding that she frequently attends meetings in various school districts, claiming that these policies are somehow beneficial to the mental health and well-being of students. “She’s on a crusade, for sure,” they say.
While Bree has been on the receiving end of threats and libel, they say what’s happening at Chino Valley Unified School District is even worse.
According to Kristi Hirst, a parent to three students in Chino Valley Unified, the district has a history of extremism and Christian nationalism, which has only increased in recent years. The conservative school board implemented a parental notification policy, which was eventually blocked by a judge last month. Board members allegedly claimed that trans students were “suffering from mental illness and perversion.”
“They’re putting forth the idea that they’re forcibly outing kids to ‘help’ them, but then publicly during board meetings … our board president flat-out said that parents can ‘fix’ them,” Hirst tells Xtra. Emphasizing how dangerous parental notification policies are, she says they put trans students at risk of being subjected to violence or kicked out of their homes and can even deter them from seeking help if they’re being bullied at school for fear of being outed.
The school board is reportedly backed by Calvary Chapel Chino Hills—a local evangelical megachurch, whose senior pastor, Jack Hibbs, runs a political organization called Real Impact, which helps push these anti-LGBTQ2S+ school board policies in Chino Valley. Three school board members belong to the church and board president Sonja Shaw has received funding from them for her campaign, according to Hirst.
Frustrated by the overall lack of public awareness, Hirst co-founded the non-profit Our Schools USA to help grassroots organizations “monitor” school boards in order to fight back against policies that harm students and teachers and attempt to erode public education. Her organization has also partnered with the Rainbow Youth Project, which runs a crisis hotline in California for LGBT2S+ students in need of mental health and suicide-prevention counselling. “I’m grateful for the hotline. It’s literally the only resource these students have,” she says.
As for Chino Valley’s school board meetings, Hirsti says they’re filled with “grifters” and “agitators” from national groups like Moms for Liberty and the Heritage Foundation, who show up to cause a commotion and “intimidate actual community members” and prevent them from speaking more than a minute each during public comments. “We’re watching these people kind of silence us and they use this tactic of intimidating people and it works,” she says, adding that members of the Proud Boys regularly show up and “harass every student speaker we have,” while the school board doesn’t do anything to stop them.
“There’s something to be said about the role leadership plays, and your leadership really sets the tone for the kind of rhetoric and behaviour that’s acceptable,” she continues. Because of this, however, Hirst thinks “more and more people are paying attention” and seeing the damage these policies are doing to the schools.”
“I think that it’s becoming more clear to people that community members don’t want this in their community, ” she says.