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Activist moms spy on each other in culture wars over schooling

<i>CNN</i><br/>Darcy Schoening says her Colorado Springs chapter of Moms 4 Liberty has about 250 people in it.
Darcy Schoening says her Colorado Springs chapter of Moms 4 Liberty has about 250 people in it.

By Elle Reeve and Samantha Guff, CNN

Colorado Springs, Colorado (CNN) — Members of the conservative parental rights group Moms for Liberty are known for making impassioned and sometimes spicy speeches to school boards to complain that teachers are supposedly indoctrinating students. This can include mothers, often in the group’s trademark tee, standing at a lectern reading sex scenes from books they deem inappropriate to have near their children.

Supporters post videos of these speeches, some of which have gone viral. And the group has claimed success, pointing to growing membership nationwide as well as policies and elections going their way. But because Moms for Liberty is working on such a local level, opponents have found plenty of opportunities to take action.

“I just got back from forcibly re-closeting myself for 90 minutes to infiltrate a Moms for Liberty meeting. … I got so much juice!” a TikTok user who goes by Morgan Howls said in a video. The video is one of many on social media made by parents who say they’ve “infiltrated” the group and give details of its strategy to others who do not support its politics.

When CNN traveled to Colorado earlier this month to observe a lunch meeting held by the El Paso County chapter of Moms for Liberty, chapter chair Darcy Schoening cautioned that some opponents might show up. It had happened before. Schoening knew there were liberal parents lurking in her chapter’s private Facebook group, because her group had some moles in the liberals’ Facebook group.

“We all know what’s going on. I don’t even know why we keep stuff private,” she said about the clandestine monitoring. She even said she welcomed some of the intended attacks on her group, showing screenshots of opponents messaging about what to tweet in protest.

“What they don’t realize is that they’re doing half the work for us,” Schoening said. “Because the more and more they post… You get those parents that are sitting out there saying, ‘Oh, this doesn’t sound so crazy. I want to go be a part of this.’”

There were no confrontations at the Moms for Liberty meeting held in a Mexican restaurant in Colorado Springs. There was some provocative talk about purported sexual content in library books – Schoening claimed a book about “how do two men pleasure each other” was available to first graders. (She did not name the book or say what school it was supposedly found in.) But the attendees spent more time on how to wield their power.

Activists helped to get conservative majorities elected to several school boards in El Paso County in 2021. At issue then were Covid mandates and teaching about racial injustice, two issues that spurred the creation of Moms for Liberty by two mothers in Florida earlier that same year.

The El Paso County chapter’s latest push was to get Colorado Springs’s District 11 school board to adopt a policy banning teachers from asking kids about their pronouns – whether they preferred “he,” “she,” or “they” – which Schoening described as “grooming.” But the proposal sparked a big backlash, and after protests in March, the board tabled it.

One man at the lunch said some school boards were “afraid to act” on issues like pronouns and bathroom access for trans kids because of the demands of “the loudest minority,” referring to progressives.

“It’s a very loud minority,” another attendee said. “It’s very loud. It’s very intimidating,” a third agreed.

But that was not a justifiable reason, the first speaker said. “The fact of the matter is, when we come out and we campaign for them, and we put them in an office. … We’re their stakeholders, and they’re beholden to us.”

As CNN filmed the meeting, a woman sitting in the back passed the crew a handwritten note: “We have the other side of this story. This is a hate group.” This time, the opponents were being covert, not overt.

The note-passer was Carolyn Bedingfield, who said a like-minded person was coming to the restaurant who had “more info.” In the parking lot, Emily Vonachen was waiting in her car. Vonachen said Colorado Springs had changed a lot in the two years she’d lived there. She’d been researching every conservative power player in the area and how they were all connected. She agreed to an interview, and then called several people from Neighbors for Education, a group set up after the conservatives’ school board wins in 2021.

The dispute between the two groups was clear, and they took it seriously. The Neighbors for Education crowd thought Moms for Liberty was operating in a different reality.

Schoening of Moms for Liberty explained why she viewed asking a child what pronouns they preferred was “indoctrinating” them into questioning their gender.

“If you ask my children, who are 7 and 8, ‘What are your pronouns?’ They don’t even know what that is,” she said. “When you ask that, you’re planting the seed in their minds, that they maybe should identify as another gender or that identifying as another gender is hip or cool – ‘Hey, my teacher’s asking me, so maybe this is what I should do.’”

Naomi Lopez, one of the people gathered by Neighbors for Education, called that “ridiculous.” Lopez is a speech pathologist who works in a District 11 school. She’s also the mom of a trans kid.

“That’s not happening,” she said of Schoening’s scenario. “We’re not going around saying, ‘OK, you know, I want you to think about it, what gender are you?’” When teachers meet new students, they ask how they want to be addressed, she said – a kid named Josiah might want to go by Joe. A kid could say they wanted to use a particular pronoun, and the teacher would respect that.

Schoening made a series of claims that are not true, but are common amid a backlash to advocacy for trans rights.

For example, Schoening raised the idea that a tomboy – a girl who wore flannel and sneakers – would be told by a teacher, “You know, it might be time to gender transition. Let’s go talk to the school therapist. Let’s go talk to a physician. Let’s do this.” Schoening said she did not know any tomboys who’d actually transitioned after social pressure. But, she said, “Imagine the kids that aren’t strong enough to go talk to their parents and say, ‘My teacher is trying to gender transition me.’ We’re speaking for those kids. And those parents who aren’t made aware.”

Further, Schoening claimed 8-year-old boys could get surgery to remove their penises, and that she feared her state would pass a law saying if parents refused to have their boys’ penises surgically removed, the state would take them away. She thought this issue would eventually go to the US Supreme Court.

Medical guidelines do not call for gender affirming surgery on young children, and many health care providers do not offer it to patients under 18. Children diagnosed with gender dysphoria go through many years of care. In some instances, they can receive puberty-blocking hormones at the onset of puberty. These drugs are FDA-approved to treat children who start puberty at a very young age, but are not approved for gender dysphoria.

CNN asked Schoening if she was saying she believed there was some kind of high-level coordinated effort to make more children trans and gay. “There is,” she said. Who would be directing it? “Teachers’ unions, and our president, and a lot of funding sources,” she said. Why would they do that? “Because it breaks down the family unit,” she said. And why would they want that? “So that conservative values are broken down, and that we can slowly erode away at constitutional rights,” she said.

There is no evidence of a coordinated plot to make kids trans.

CNN asked Lopez what she thought of Schoening’s claims. Lopez flatly rejected the idea that teachers would encourage little kids to get surgery. “No, that’s ridiculous. The hell? No,” Lopez said.

CNN asked Lopez if there was a plan by President Biden and teacher unions to make more kids gay and trans to break down the traditional family. She began to get exasperated. “That’s ridiculous,” she said. “Attacking a whole sector of society who happen to be our children in order to push whatever agenda you have is dangerous, irresponsible, hateful, egregious – should I go on? No.”

And Lopez said there was no evidence that her child’s classmates cared.

“My child thinks it’s ludicrous, that it’s such a big deal, because to them, it’s just normal. To their friends, they don’t care how my child identifies, they love them for who they are.”

Another person in the Neighbors for Education group, Tiana Clark, said the controversy was a waste of time and resources. Clark is a parent and substitute teacher in that district. After one parent complained about five books, the school district had to form a committee to determine whether each book could stay in the school library. Clark sat on a committee.

“Of the five books, three of them had never been checked out. Two of them were only checked out once,” Clark said. All five books remained in the library, but the effort cost more than $20,000, she said, and asked, “What could that $20,000 have been spent on?”

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