At a meeting of the Shasta County chapter of Moms for Liberty early last month, Anderson Unified High School District board member Jackie LaBarbera described a bullying incident that recently occurred at Anderson High School: Several boys allegedly attempted to dunk another boy’s head in a toilet and post the video on Instagram. Only one boy received detention, LaBarbera laments in a video of her appearance at the Moms for Liberty meeting that was posted on Facebook.
“This is something I hear over and over and over throughout the school districts,” LaBarbera insisted. “I don’t understand. They have all these anti-bullying things for trans kids but they’re not protecting anyone else. It’s systemic. Obviously, money and the teachers’ union are somehow behind it.”
There are many problems with LaBarbera’s attempt to leverage the alleged bullying incident into a general condemnation of Shasta County’s school districts as woke enclaves that cater primarily to transgender students, one major hitch being this: the bullying incident turned out to be a prank perpetrated by the four students in the video.
In other words, LaBarbera got punked by a group of high school students, along with everybody else.
Unfortunately, before the prank was uncovered by school administrators, outrage about the alleged bullying incident spread, aided by LaBarbera and others who according to emails obtained by a public records act request claimed Anderson High School principal Tom Safford had shown favoritism to one of the alleged bullies, who is his son’s friend.
That anger spilled over from the campus to the April 11 AUHSD board meeting, where Safford was placed on administrative leave during closed session.
Safford was later reassigned to a district position; AUHSD superintendent Victor Hopper did not give a specific reason for the move. But at the April 21 special board meeting held to determine his ultimate fate in the district, Safford said he had come to learn he’d been removed as principal because of the alleged bullying incident.
“We can have our disagreements, but ultimately we want to get to the truth and I feel like I was lied to,” Safford said.
“I was told I was on administrative leave because of your board decision over the handling of a case where a student was not suspended. I was then told there was a lot of conjectures made by you, specifically by Jackie, and that’s hurtful. It’s hurtful for all of us. I don’t like to be lied to.”
Safford said it didn’t matter if one of the students involved in the video was his son’s friend, the evidence didn’t rise to the level of a suspension. Faced with similar circumstances in the future, he said, “I would do it all over again, 100 percent.”
LaBarbera declined to answer A News Café’s questions about the prank video, her membership in Moms for Liberty, and the changes she’s seeking to make to AUHSD board policy regarding LGBTQ+ students.
The answers to those questions are important because so-called conservative parental rights school board members like LaBarbera and activist organizations like Moms for Liberty that have risen from the pandemic ashes are challenging a founding principle that what was once at least somewhat agreed upon by mainstream liberals and conservatives, namely the common sense necessity of enforcing the separation between church and state, particularly when it comes to public education.
Contrary to its claimed status as a grassroots nonpartisan nonprofit organization, Moms for Liberty, founded in Florida in 2021 by a pair of former school board members, has deep ties to the Republican Party and the Council for National Policy, the latter of which includes a vast network of televangelists preaching the Christian nationalist doctrine, some of whom were involved in the Jan. 6 insurrection, as reported by Florida’s Bucks County Beacon.
Christian nationalism, which is a form of fascism, especially when coupled with the GOP’s right-wing religious billionaire donor base, is based on the unconstitutional claim that the United States was founded as a Christian nation that privileges the sincerely held beliefs of a certain kind of Christian—namely conservative evangelicals and conservative Catholics (like five of our nine Supreme Court Justices)—over the beliefs of all other Christians, religions, and nonbelievers.
Chief among these sincerely held religious beliefs is the idea that there are only two genders and anyone outside that binary is a literal abomination. Moms for Liberty has been at the forefront of the national movement to erase the LGBTQ+ community from public schools.
They started with transgender students, who in state after state have been denied health care, the right to use the bathroom consistent with their gender identity and the right to be called the names and pronouns of their choice. Think it can’t get worse? It can. Moms for Liberty successfully lobbied the state of Florida to expand its “Don’t Say Gay” in public schools law, which originally applied only to grades K-3, through to grade 12.
In the Moms for Liberty view espoused by members such as LaBarbera, teachers, counselors, and administrators are grooming fresh young recruits for the Democratic Party’s global pedophile ring. Young adult novels that mention sex—especially LGBTQ+ sex—are to be banned. Drag queens reading stories for kids at local public libraries? Forget about it.
According to the group’s Facebook page, Moms for Liberty has 196 local members and includes a large cross-section of the usual suspects. In addition to LaBarbera, you’ll find right-wing gadflies Mark Kent and Rich Gallardo, Gateway Unified School District trustees Elias and Lindsi Haynes, Katie Gorman (wife of Christian nationalist Shasta County Board of Education member Authur Gorman), New California State’s Patty Plumb, self-proclaimed militia member Jesse Lane and Terry Rapoza’s SOJ radio sidekick Win Carpenter.
The crowd of more than 100 people at the April 21 AUHSD meeting overwhelmingly supported Safford’s reinstatement as Anderson High School principal. A dozen people spoke on his behalf. Shasta County District 5 supervisor Chris Kelstrom offered a folksy rebuttal to the fake bullying video.
“I think this current situation right here, I think maybe some conclusions were jumped to and I think maybe some people started going down the wrong path and it’s very hard to turn around once you start going down that path,” Kelstrom drawled.
“I saw the whole video, the kids wanted it to look like it was real and it was bullying. I don’t believe it was bullying when they’re all smiling at the very end of it.”
The board went into closed session and returned to somewhat unexpectantly announce Safford would be reinstated as Anderson High School principal after all, to which the crowd roared its approval.
It had been a chaotic 10 days at AUHSD, but chaos has become the norm on Shasta County school boards where right-wing religious activists have taken supposedly nonpartisan seats in the wake of last November’s election.
It’s a pattern being repeated across the country, where Moms for Liberty claims to have 110,000 members spread across 265 chapters in 43 states. A recent article in Vice tracking Moms for Liberty-generated chaos found the group “has targeted teachers, administrators, parents, and school board members, orchestrating harassment campaigns that have left people fearing for their safety—and in some cases, their lives.”
It all sounds a little close to home. Consider the following events.
After homophobic Christian nationalist Cherrill Clifford and Lindsi Haynes joined Lindsi’s husband Elias Haynes on the Gateway Unified School District board of trustees last December, the new MAGA majority immediately fired superintendent Jim Harrell, intending to replace him with Bryan Caples, the failed Christian nationalist superintendent of schools candidate who was dismissed from his three previous stints as a school superintendent.
In fact, Clifford, as the newly anointed board president, went so far as to sign a contract with Caples without informing her colleagues. She pulled a similar stunt trying to hire an out-of-town conservative Christian parental rights attorney as the district’s counsel. Confronted with a lawsuit filed by the Gateway Citizens Committee demanding that the district follow its own policies for hiring a superintendent, Clifford resigned in early February.
Since then the ultraconservative but inexperienced Haynes couple and the more moderate longtime board members Dale Wallace and Phil Lewis have been deadlocked in a 2-2 tie, unable to agree on Clifford’s replacement after interviewing scores of candidates and holding three separate elections.
The Haynes voted for their fellow Moms for Liberty member Jesse Lane twice to no avail.
The district now has to pay for an expensive special election in November which has yet to be officially scheduled in a county where the MAGA majority board of supervisors has recently jettisoned the county’s voting machines, disenfranchising (at least temporarily) 111,766 registered voters.
Clifford’s replacement may not be the only item on November’s ballot, assuming there is a ballot. Despite the fact that the Gateway board showed some stability in late April by unanimously choosing former Central Valley High School principal Kyle Turner to replace fired Gateway superintendent Jim Harrell, the Save Gateway Committee has submitted recall petitions for Elias and Lindsi Haynes to the Shasta County Registrar of Voters. Upon approval, the committee will have 90 days to collect 2025 signatures each for the Haynes to qualify for the ballot.
In a press release announcing the recall effort, the committee, comprised of parents, teachers, and other concerned community members, cited the Haynes’s inexperience, incompetence, and repeated votes against the wishes of the majority of the district as reasons for the recall.
“Lindsi and Elias Haynes have created an unstable work environment, causing numerous educators to resign from the district due to the lack of communication of their intentions as board members, and voting in direct opposition to the majority of the community’s wishes. Gateway Unified School District must move forward with new leadership that prioritizes student success over personal agendas and political maneuvering.”
Retired Gateway teacher Leanne Westphal sums it up nicely:
“The lack of experience has led to chaos on the Gateway Unified School District board, prompting the call for recall,” she said in the press release.
Meanwhile, chaos has been moving at a more sedate pace at the Millville Elementary School District where conservative parental rights advocates Taryn Ham, Whitney Hathaway, and Beth Watt, who ran as a block in November, now comprise the majority on the five-member board.
So far, the trio has floated a parental rights resolution that’s a carbon copy of the resolution passed earlier this year at AUHSD, but the board has not adopted it after objections from some teachers. There haven’t been any earth-shattering developments, but all that may be about to change.
As is the case with most local school boards that have been infiltrated by extremists, Millville’s parents, teachers, and staff are afraid to talk publicly, lest they incur the new board’s wrath. But privately staff members have expressed concerns about the new board majority to A News Cafe.
Millville Elementary is a small, bucolic K-8 school nestled against a hillside of what used to be Old Highway 44 just east of the Millville Volunteer Fire Dept. It’s small enough so beloved longtime superintendent Mindy DeSantis knows the names and hobbies of every student, whom she greets personally every school morning.
Or so says the Kellogg family in a recent letter to the board supporting the renewal of DeSantis’s contract, which expires June 30. Pledges of support for DeSantis have become more frequent at recent board meetings because it has become clear to some observers that Ham, Hathaway, and Watt still bear a grudge against the superintendent because she supported public health mandates during the COVID-19 pandemic, as required by state law.
Now, chaos may be about to rear its ugly head, and it may look a little bit like Bryan Caples.
On Mon., May 8 at 10 a.m., the Millville Elementary School District board will hold a special meeting to discuss the superintendent position in closed session. At the regular board meeting on May 10 at 5:30 p.m., late Wednesday afternoon, the board will once again enter closed session to discuss the superintendent position.
According to A News Café’s sources, one of two things might happen:
DeSantis may agree to stay on for two years if certain conditions are met, including the ratcheting down of political tensions in the district.
Or according to a second source, DeSantis’s contract will not be renewed and she will be replaced with … a drum roll please … thrice-fired superintendent and open Christian nationalist Bryan Caples.
If the latter is true, it may set the Guinness World Record for cutting your nose off to spite your face.
As A News Café has previously reported, Caples has an extremely sketchy work history as a school superintendent. He resigned after the Scott Valley Unified School District board of trustees placed him on indefinite leave in 2013, was released from his employment agreement with the Palermo Union School District in 2018, and was terminated by the Burnt Ranch Elementary School District just last year.
From Siskiyou to Butte to Trinity County, Caples, 54, who has a Ph.D. in Educational Administration and Organizational Leadership from the University of LaVerne in Los Angeles County and sometimes puts “Dr.” before his name, has bounced all over Northern California.
Why would anyone go out on a limb to offer a low six-figure contract to a candidate with a track record like Caples? One possible reason for Ham, Hathaway, and Watt is that Caples is an open Christian nationalist, willing to publicly take on the socialist teachers’ unions and their imagined transgender rainbow agenda. Caples’ agenda was so popular, he got crushed by double-digits by incumbent Shasta County Superintendent of Schools Judy Flores last November.
But this isn’t about competency to some people.
It’s about chaos.
It’s also about Christ. At a contentious Gateway Unified School District meeting in January in which a motion was made and seconded to begin the meeting with a prayer, Jackie LaBarbera stepped up and delivered the prayer, earning a rebuke from the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Prayers, at least out loud, have been absent from Gateway meetings since, so at least some semblance of separation between church and public school district is being maintained.
But not by the likes of Jackie LaBarbera. Like her Moms for Liberty colleague Authur Gorman, LaBarbera is an unapologetic right-wing Christian proselytizer who makes no distinction between the practice of her religion and her duties as an AUHSD board trustee. She admitted as much on Shasta County Supervisor Kevin Crye’s KCNR 1460 radio show in late March.
“The last three years I realized something was wrong with our country,” said LaBarbera, who began preaching the false gospel of Christian nationalism at Pathway Church after the pandemic kicked in. She claims to have trained more than 100 people in “Biblical citizenship” which she describes as a “marriage between patriotism and Christianity.”
“I had a lot of time on my knees before the Lord with my heart broken for my country,” LaBarbera elaborated. “To me I always want to take everything to the Word. My heart’s broken for this but what do you want me to do with it? I dove into the Word and learned how America came to be and how we are a Christian nation. I don’t think we have to apologize for that.”
On the other hand, LaBarbera said conspiratorially, “There are superintendents, that truly believe, and teachers and counselors, and teachers’ union presidents, and teachers’ union members, that truly believe children belong to the state.”
LaBarbera told Crye she’s spoken to Aurora Regino the mother who is suing the Chico Unified School District for allegedly socially transitioning her 11-year-old daughter without her knowledge. The suit was filed on behalf of Regino by the San Francisco-based Center for American Liberty, a conservative Republican law firm that specializes in high-profile civil and religious liberty “lawfare” cases against overly woke corporations, health care providers, and school districts.
“It used to be when something was happening in LA or SF it didn’t get to Redding for 20 years,” Crye complained. “Now it’s three months, six months.”
“It’s scary, it’s freaking scary that people would even argue that is normal or OK!” LaBarbera said.
In reality, the “secret record” the Chico school kept on the student was in line with state administrative regulations and school board policies put in effect in 2013 that protect the privacy rights of transgender students aged 12 and over who inform a teacher, counselor or other staff member they fear revealing their gender identity to their parents or guardians.
The Chico case is complicated. The daughter is 11 and had just lost her father. Her mother was battling cancer. The mother claims the daughter told the counselor she wanted mom to know. No one told mom, she found out from grandma. The school district hasn’t commented on the details of the case, but the board voted 3-2 to keep the regulations and policies in place last month.
These are the very same rules, known as administrative regulation 5145.3 and board policy 6164.2, that LaBarbera hopes to alter with the ad hoc committee she proposed at the April 21 meeting after Safford was reinstated.
“There is a consensus that not all children are being protected,” said LaBarbera who genuinely seems to believe cisgender students are being victimized by the civil rights protections transgender students enjoy. “I want to respect everybody, I would like to do an ad hoc committee, I just don’t want there to be like a lot of red tape and have it kicked down the road over and over. I would like to motion to form an ad hoc committee with me appointed as the chair and then I can design that committee how I see and bring that to you at a later date.”
The board unanimously approved the motion.
It was LaBarbera’s third attempt to form the ad hoc committee; twice she was thwarted by local representatives of the California Teacher’s Association, who dinged the ultraconservative firebrand for Brown Act procedural violations. She’s tenacious. On Crye’s radio show, she took credit for the board’s unanimous support for a resolution rejecting the HPV vaccine, the 4-1 victory for the parents’ rights resolution, and the passage of a mandatory district mailing that allows parents to opt out of state testing, surveys, health studies, social and emotional learning surveys, and sex ed. The ad hoc committee beckons.
In the meantime, the local CTA complaint that the AUHSD board and staff did nothing at the April 11 board meeting to reign in the blatantly transphobic rhetoric of right-wing provocateurs Lori Bridgeford, Rich Gallardo, and other public speakers as more than a score of LGBTQ+ students sat in the audience remains active. According to a source, the AUHSD human resources department is in the process of notifying LGBTQ+ students they have the right to file a complaint against the bullies if they were offended by the anti-trans rhetoric.
It’s possible the agreement between mainstream liberals and conservatives on the commonsense necessity of enforcing the separation between church and state the writer imagines is exaggerated after 40 years of right-wing Christian activism. Still, locally, recent conservative Christian Republican candidates such as Erin Resner and Tenessa Audette have publicly supported the separation between church and state and acknowledged we live in a multicultural society with many different religious beliefs.
We may now have reached a point where that position is no longer tenable for Republican Party members.