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Florida teachers say they're being silenced amid the rise of Moms for Liberty

Many training sessions were closed to the media on the express request of the Leadership Institute, a Moms For Liberty spokeswoman said.
Kerry Sheridan
WUSF Public Media
Many training sessions were closed to the media on the express request of the Leadership Institute, a Moms For Liberty spokeswoman said.

School board meetings around Florida have turned into contentious battles in the past few years. It started with debates over mask mandates and has turned to how public schools should handle issues of race and LGTBQ inclusion in classrooms. Now some people are blaming the rise of groups like Moms for Liberty for the increasing harassment of local school officials.

Leon County School Board candidate Anthony DeMarco says he first became aware of Mom’s for Liberty during the school mask fights early in the pandemic. Leon was one of several districts that fought the state to keep its mandatory mask policy in place. As the pandemic wore on, DeMarco, who frequented local school board meetings, said he saw the focus shift to from mask mandates to LGBTQ students around March of last year– once members of the group Moms For Liberty began showing up.

“There was no verbal attack on students and then, once Moms for Liberty got introduced and there was an official Moms For Liberty Leon County, then all of a sudden we had LGBTQIA issues," said DeMarco.

Moms for Liberty—which started in Brevard County, was founded by former school board members Tina Descovich and Tiffany Justice, who served in neighboring Brevard and Indian River counties. Descovich has also credited Bridget Ziegler with helping found the group. Ziegler is married to Florida Republican Party Vice-chairman, Christian Zeigler.

Jennifer Jenkins, a Democrat who defeated Republican Descovich for Brevard County School Board in 2020, says members of Moms for Liberty started showing up at school board meetings right after that election and I had people following me around, following me to my car, following me to my car screaming at me," she said.

"I had private investigators following me around, sending death threats to me.” 

Jenkins said the situation grew out of control in March 2021 when Descovich posted the district’s LGBTQ anti-discrimination guidance to her Facebook page. The guidance, meant to help teachers and administrators navigate LGBTQ issues raised by students, was not new though the district was making updates at the time.

Those updates included allowing students to play on sports teams matching their gender identity, and letting students decide if the school could release information to parents regarding that child's sexual orientation and gender identity. The policies immediately drew attention.

“That’s when it got crazy at out school board meetings," said Jenkins. "I mean, she [Descovich] riled up the craziest of the crazies.”

Descovich said on social media at that time that her group was not part of the out-of-control protests.

The backlash against LGBTQ anti-discrimination policies has since spread across the state, and Moms For Liberty chapters have sprung up across Florida and in dozens of other states as well. Governor Ron DeSantis has signed legislation prohibiting students from playing sports on teams aligning with their gender identity. He also signed a new law critics have dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” law, that bans classroom instruction of gender identity and sexual orientation and requires parental notification of students’ requests to use different pronouns.

“We’re going to make sure that parents are able to send their kids to kindergarten without having some of this stuff injected into their school curriculum,” DeSantis said earlier this year.

Brevard’s Jenkins says she doesn’t believe the Moms For Liberty founders created the pushback on LGBTQ rights, race and history, but she does believe some Republican strategists saw the opening and exploited it, and teachers have become a special focus for the group.

“We feel like prey animals, you know. We know the predators are out there, we know that if we come forward, if we leave our dens, if we come out, they’re going to pounce," said Jessica, who teaches high school English in the Leon County School District.

Jessica asked to only use her first name because she’s afraid of being targeted by Moms for Liberty for speaking out. She said she no longer posts freely on social media or feels comfortable going out socially with school friends. Teachers have been heckled at local school board meetings and Jessica worries their social media profiles are being monitored.

Fellow Leon teacher Brandy Vance recently found herself under fire by angry parents and even a local Republican state representative who suggested she be fired for comments posted to her personal social media page that blasted the state's new law against discussing gender and sexual identity in the classroom.

“I’ve taught thousands of kids, I’ve never had any sort of complaint of a parent saying that I have handled a situation in a way that they don’t feel comfortable, ever," she said.

In her post, Vance pushed back on the idea that people who support LGBTQ kids are “groomers,” a term often associated with pedophiles, and one some people, like DeSantis' spokeswoman Christina Pushaw, have leveled against people who don't support the governor's policies on the issue.

“Nobody has ever said they thought that I was 'grooming' their child or have any issues like that," said Vance, "So for people to say that just because I want to protect these kids that are marginalized and at-risk was mind-blowing.”

Moms for Liberty Co-founder Tiffany Justice agreed to an interview for this story, but later backed out. Interview requests to Tina Descovich and Moms for Liberty’s spokesperson went unanswered.

A request to the Leon County chapter of the group was also unreturned.

Moms for Liberty recently held its first conference featuring Governor Ron DeSantis, Florida U.S. Senator Rick Scott and former U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. The group endorsed DeSantis’ re-election campaign.

Sarah Mueller is a journalist who has worked for media outlets in several states since 2010. She earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism in 2010 and worked as a print reporter covering local government and politics.