I have been tasked with trying to explain the impact of Moms for Liberty and other aligned extremist groups on parents, teachers, and students in my school district (and surrounding ones). I live in Central Bucks, the fourth largest school district in Pennsylvania – it was called a “bucolic swath of suburbia” in a podcast called Schooled.
And to do that, I am going to make an unusual analogy. It struck when I was watching Season 4 of the show Stranger Things this spring, months and months after the collective binge watching. The scene unfolding in front of my eyes – a devastated, zealous, and entirely misled basketball captain leading an inquisition against the Dungeons and Dragons crew, as he scapegoats them for all of the town’s ills. That’s when I turned to my husband and said, “That’s the school board.” And my long-suffering husband gently rolled his eyes (of course, I would be talking about the school board), but then said thoughtfully, “you’re kinda right.”
Stay with me, those of you doubting my ability to connect my “bucolic swath of suburbia” to a sci-fi show. For those unfamiliar with the premise, Stranger Things is a multi-hyphenate genre show (supernatural horror-science fiction-societal commentary-080’s nostalgia) following a band of misfit kids led by a superpowered teenage girl as they try to keep an unsettling alternate reality, the Upside Down, from becoming their actual (and sometimes equally unsettling) reality.
In Season 4, we see how religious fanaticism, mistrust of establishment structures, and the willful scapegoating of a marginalized group literally tears the fabric of a community. Hmmm. Starting to sound familiar?
My own foray into the Stranger Things (the Season 1 version) running afoot in my school district began in July 2021, at a press conference about COVID mitigation strategies; while I was prepared for differences in opinion regarding masks, I was laughably unprepared for the ensuing chaos and racist vitriol hurled at me, including that I was “an illegal alien” and a “murderer.” That little disruptive spectacle was courtesy of the now defunct Reopen Bucks, which has now rebranded itself as Protect Bucks. I will always remember something chilling that the founder of that group, Josh Hogan, said back then – that this group was all about “reclaiming Bucks County for the righteous, clean, and normative people here.” He’s running for Pennridge school board now.
So yes, this was my introduction into CB – I think the intent was to make me feel like an alien and interloper in my own community. COVID seemed to have unleashed a gateway to a new force shaping our communities, because misinformation was an effective way to capture a disempowered audience. Because you are powerless in the face of a pandemic.
Anyway, that should have probably been our first inkling about what was yet to come, before Moms for Liberty* shaped the edges of the “clean, righteous, and normative” rhetoric into something more palatable – “parental rights.”
And let me add the asterisk here every time – because I want you to remember that it’s only some parents, some families, and some kids that are worthy of these rights.
In fact, “parental rights” or “parents over politics,” was the slogan that dominated the school board election cycle in 2021 – which seated 2 Moms for Liberty members firmly into positions of power. And this was AFTER one Moms for Liberty member, Debra Cannon, said publicly and coldly, that she believes “diversity, equity, and inclusion effectively dole out Cs on the curve to whomever wants or needs one.” She plagiarized those sentiments (with no sense of irony) from a Moms for Liberty adjacent group called “No Left Turn for Education.” Debra Cannon is now the CB representative to the Bucks County IU, a program ostensibly devoted to the inclusion and integration of a diverse group of children with special needs into their larger community, and the provision of an equitable education for them.
With a new school board, book bans came for earnest to bucolic Central Bucks. There was a crystalizing moment in retrospect – when a group of people (featuring the same crew calling me an “illegal” in that press conference) marched into a school board meeting reading curated excerpts from the works of predominantly Black, Brown, and LGBTQ authors. Toni Morrison’s Bluest Eye was heavily featured as “pornography” in that meeting. I’ll never forget what one brave student said, over the heckles of the grown adults in the crowd: “how is it that you are going to ban books with certain words, when I am called those very same words walking down the halls of school?” Superintendent Lucabaugh seemed to corroborate that, saying “a good day for [LGBTQ+] students was not being harassed or sending a slur their way.”
Later on, we would learn that the excerpts matched those cherry-picked by Moms for Liberty’s national chapter. And it seemed that Central Bucks was ripe for the picking too.
Almost instantaneously following that meeting and despite the fact that individual families could ALWAYS control what their individual child could read, Library Policy 109.2 materialized – book ban policy that masqueraded as a book selection one. Because if the enterprise of book selection predominantly features how NOT to select them, well … the policy seems a bit Upside Down. But given that book bans are highly unpopular, the policy was touted as an “anti-porn” one. Again, a rebranding courtesy of Moms for Liberty*.
*Asterisk added – some moms, for their comfort and liberty only. The “righteous and clean ones,” as determined by this group. Remember that every time.
And here’s the thing about the book ban policy – you don’t have to ban books to actually keep them from the hands of students. If you create an environment where fear of picking the wrong book outweighs their literary merit (that was intentionally taken out of the library policy BTW), you have essentially created a chilling effect for our teachers, for our students, and for education. A subtle insidious ban, enforced by collective silence.
The dominos fell quickly after that with the removal of pride flags from classrooms, and the then the codification of the banning of symbols of inclusion by Policy 321. The weaponization of queer and especially trans existence is a veritable battle cry for the Moms for Liberty set – a convenient scapegoat that allows their school boards to enacting sweeping censorship measures (re-branded as “neutrality,” because of course no one likes censorship right?) while further marginalizing an already marginalized community in the most tender time and place of all. In their formative years at school.
Because it’s always been about what some community members want, at the culling of others’ needs.
By the way, “culling” was a phrase used by our Superintendent to describe what is ostensibly next in the Moms for Liberty and adjacent playbook – how to cull the curriculum. This is already happening in our neighboring school district, Pennridge, under a “curriculum consultant” Vermilion, who also unsurprisingly has a Moms for Liberty connection. At the end of this month, that consultant is speaking at the Moms for Liberty rally in Philadelphia.
So here’s the thing, when you invite Moms for Liberty into your school district – it opens the Trojan Horse, the Upside Down, whatever you want to call it – it reinforces the connection to all of these ancillary groups (Vermilion, Independence Law Center) and self-propagating consequences that flay your town open. Because the M4L premise is that the plurality of existence beyond a narrow circle is inherently threatening and therefore must be banned, neutralized, and culled.
We are an ordinary Every Suburb, USA and in less than two years, we have been overtaken by forces that have now interwoven seamlessly into our town. And these forces are now simultaneously seething and growing, as they are being shown in the light for what they are, as more and more news comes out about our district. And those paying the highest price are kids and families already marginalized.
Their story here is of caution and warning yes, but also one of hope and resilience. Because I still believe that my town’s story, our state’s story, and our nation’s story must spark action.
I want to leave you with two things that speak to that.
First – recently, a man named Donald Triplett died at the age of 89. He was widely known as the first person who was diagnosed with autism. In reading one of the many, many articles written about his fascinating life story, this line stuck out to me – “the 3000 large community of Forest made a probably unconscious but clear decision in how they were going to treat this strange boy, then man, who lived among them. They decided in short to accept him.”
Second, something a kindergarten teacher told me as I worried about my child’s entry into the school district. She said, “I just want you to know that your child will be loved here.” Because that’s what you want, right? Certainly, you want your child to be challenged in a learning environment. But ultimately, and especially when your child is different, you want them to find a sense of belonging in their larger community.
And that serves as my motivation to push back against these Stranger Things that have overtaken my district. Because unless you work to create the sense of belonging and acceptance all our children deserve, these stranger forces will one day come to reclaim something from you.