Samuels Library has been lending books to the residents of rural Warren County, Virginia, for more than 200 years. But today, it’s continued existence is threatened by a small band of locals upset over the fact that it carries some titles with LGBTQ themes — or as the group calls them, books featuring “lesbian junk,” “homoerotic passages,” “sodomidical [sic] couples,” “witchcraft” as well as one volume considered objectionable because its protagonist “has an identity based on obesity.” Those complaints are drawn from the more than 800 removal requests filed by Clean Up Samuels, which were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by its rival organization, Save Samuels.
Such efforts, fueled by a growing right-wing “parents rights” movement, are on the rise around the country, according to the organization PEN America, which began tracking them in 2021. This school year alone, the group says there have been 3,362 book bans of 1,557 titles across the country. In Warren County, Clean Up Samuels sprung up shortly after a local Moms for Liberty chapter was founded in February. When supervisors voted to defund the library in June, Moms for Liberty local chair Leslie Matthews, now a candidate for the local school board, appeared in support, as did another school board candidate, Tom McFadden, who spoke on Clean Up Samuels’ behalf, according to the group.
Over the last three years in Virginia — ever since Governor Glenn Youngkin was swept into power on a tide of pent-up pandemic-festered parental rage, promising to ban “inherently divisive” works and put an end to mask mandates — school boards have become the red-hot center of political action, the site of heated arguments that have led to lawsuits and arrests. And this November, the races are attracting candidates with extreme views and donors with deep pockets.
Across the commonwealth, dozens of parents rights advocates are running for school board seats. Many support book bans, espouse anti-LGBT views, have ties to either Moms for Liberty or 1776 Project PAC, a group which says it “works to insert conservative ideology into school boards nationwide.”
The debates taking place in these rooms are increasingly acrimonious: In Goochland County, one school board member is suing her colleagues for defamation after they censured her over a Facebook post; a Spotsylvania County school board member was charged with a felony for allegedly signing a contract without his colleagues’ approval; and in Gloucester, Virginia four men were arrested this summer for bringing guns to a school board meeting after a disagreement over trans students’ access to bathrooms.
Where they’ve won seats already, activists are making their mark. In Spotsylvania — where, in 2021, school board members suggested banning and burning some library books — parents this year were forced to answer if they agreed with the statement “I want my child to have access to sexually explicit content in the school libraries” before they were allowed to register their kids for classes. (If they refused to answer, parents were blocked from using the school’s primary communications channel.)
Races for the once-obscure minor public office are, this year, attracting big donors and plenty of mudslinging. In Loudon County, a mobile billboard sponsored by the group Accuracy in the Media, itself bankrolled by conservative mega donor and Tea Party benefactor Ed Uihlein, is driving around town with messages about Democratic-affliated candidates. (The billboards have parked, at times, in front of the Democratic candidates’ own homes.) In Fairfax County, one candidate sent a mailer featuring a photoshopped image of his opponent alongside a sample of the “pornography” he accuses her of supporting: a quote from the book Lawn Boy, and a panel from the graphic novel Gender Queer.
A number of school board candidates have also attended events hosted by Moms for Liberty, or sought its endorsement. Founded in Florida in 2021 by school board members fed up with pandemic-era guidelines in schools, the group has been compared to both parents groups that fought desegregation efforts in the South, and the 1970s anti-LGBTQ group Save the Children, led by activist Anita Bryant. The organization — which has grown to some 245 chapters in 45 states and a membership of more than 115,000 — was been formally designated an anti-government extremist organization by the Southern Poverty Law Center earlier this year.
It is also, increasingly, seen as a GOP kingmaker. This summer, presidential nominees Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis, and Nikki Haley made appearances at the Moms for Liberty national convention in Philadelphia. As recently as last week, a pair in matching Moms for Liberty shirts were pictured standing on the risers behind Youngkin as he touted Virginia’s new budget.
According to its website, Moms for Liberty has only publicly endorsed a single school board candidate in Virginia this year, but many seem to be courting the group. Five candidates for the board of Prince William County Schools — Carrie Rist, Mario Beckles, Stephen Spiker, Erica Tredinnick, and Jaylen Custis — have spoken at or attended events hosted by the group. Kari LaBell, candidate for Catoctin School Board in Loudoun County, called for “All Patriots” to donate to the group in the wake of the SPLC designation. Paul Bartkowski, running for Fairfax County School Board, has retweeted Moms for Liberty, as well as the right-wing group Gays Against Groomers, who tweeted that anyone who opposes book bans “want pornography in schools” and “are perverts that want to sexualize children.”
The idea that opposing book bans is tantamount to sexualizing children is a theme among this year’s candidates. Priscilla DeStefano, vying for a seat on the Fairfax County School Board, says the board “has purposefully allowed pornography to remain in our schools even after parents demanded these books to be removed.” Harry Jackson, also running in Fairfax County, told Fox News that efforts to oppose censorship of school libraries constituted “a smack in the face of parents.” Michael Rivera, running in Loudoun County, has floated the idea of forming a “parent panel” to decide which books students can read.
Progressive groups, meanwhile, are scrambling to counter the increasingly extremist school board candidates across the country. Run For Something announced this week that, in answer to Moms for Liberty’s efforts, it plans to spend $10 million on school board races around the country over the next two years. Those efforts are mostly focused on races in 2023 and 2024; in Virginia this year, the organization has endorsed a few dozen local and state candidates so far.
Madison Irving is one Run For Something-endorsed school board candidate. A high school teacher in Chesterfield County, Irving says he became moved to run for office during the pandemic — like some of the right-wing “parent rights” candidates running, but for a very different reason.
“I see the challenges that exist within our schools,” Irving says. “A lot of people who aren’t in buildings day-to-day don’t really realize staffing is just a massive concern. We just don’t have enough people in buildings to support our students. I’m seeing how many teachers are leaving the profession. It was happening before Covid, but I think Covid exacerbated it in a lot of ways. I’m seeing that folks feel that they’re underpaid, they don’t have support, that they are given too many things to do that are not teaching, and are not related to actually supporting our students.”
As a teacher, he says, he also experiences “just a general lack of respect from some loud voices in the country. I don’t think it’s a majority of people who don’t support teachers, but I do think there’s a lot of loud voices that make people feel like they’re not appreciated.”
Irving’s opponent, Eleina Espigh, describes herself on Truth Social as “[T]hat mom. Anti-mask, anti-vax, anti-abortion … the school board’s worst enemy.” At a board meeting in the height of the pandemic, Espigh declared her son a “political prisoner” who had been “unjustly” quarantined by his school.
The race between Irving and Espigh, teacher and parent, will determine control of the Three Chopt School Board in Henrico County and, likely, tenor of the board meetings next year. We the People for Education, a nonpartisan 50(c)4 that endorses candidates across the political spectrum, has picked its candidate. It’s Irving.
“Our goal is, really, to make school boards boring again,” says Tiffany Van Der Hyde, the executive director of the group. “ I know that sounds ridiculous, but … you know, focus on the budget, focusing on being good financial stewards, focusing on sound policy, on student success, on how to pay our teachers what they’re worth. All of these things are what is important to us and to the average Virginian.”
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