It’s a Saturday afternoon in early September at the Eldorado Community Center and about 40 people have gathered to hear from a Santa Fe school board candidate. 

“Unstoppable” by Sia blares over the sound system as Patricia Vigil-Stockton — a business owner, great-grandmother and Republican — strides to the podium to make her speech.

These days, “new laws suppress or deny parental involvement,” she says, referring to bills passed by the Democrat-led state legislature this year. “You as a parent have a right to know who and what is influencing your children.” 

Vigil-Stockton, 70, is one of a growing number of candidates who are focusing their considerable energies on running for school board seats under the banner of “parental rights,” a conservative movement that’s gaining momentum across the country, fueled by Republicans and right-wing politics. Religious beliefs also play a role.

Adherents argue that public schools are indoctrinating children and exposing them to harmful ideas about sexual orientation, gender and other issues, all without informing parents. The movement has garnered hundreds of thousands of followers nationwide, generating confusion, disinformation and fear about what is and isn’t going on in the classroom.

But the parental rights agenda involves much more than just classroom policies. Lawmakers, LGBTQ+ advocates, teachers’ unions, health care providers and a wide array of activists have joined forces against the movement, which they see as an assault on civil rights, free speech and education.

They say the parental rights agenda is not really about parents — it’s about isolating and further stigmatizing LGBTQ+ students and families while promoting a right-wing Republican agenda. 

Republican Sandoval County Commissioner Jay Block, speaking at Patricia Vigil-Stockton’s event in Eldorado, says school board races can help put Republicans in power. “When we start picking off the seats one at a time, that’s how we turn the state around.” Nadav Soroker/Searchlight New Mexico

Far-right groups enter the fold

School board races in New Mexico are nonpartisan, which means candidates aren’t identified by their political party on the ballot. But they’re free to talk about the party they favor, and parties are free to endorse them. Republicans, for example, are backing Vigil-Stockton. 

Like at least three other school board candidates in the state, she is also being supported by the local leader of a controversial far-right group called Moms for Liberty, an organization that claims 285 chapters in 44 states. The Southern Poverty Law Center considers it an extremist group.

Sarah Jane Allen, the cofounder and chair of the Bernalillo County chapter — the only one in the state — said Moms for Liberty isn’t officially endorsing candidates in New Mexico. But Allen said she is supporting Vigil-Stockton, as well as Peggy Muller-Aragón and Steve Cecco in the Albuquerque Public Schools board race and Julia Ruiz, a school board candidate in Las Cruces. 

Allen, a former vice chair with the Republican Party in Bernalillo County, said she’s been hosting meet-and-greets for candidates at her home, appearing at their events, creating handbills and helping guide them through the process.

Waving aside claims that Moms for Liberty is extremist, she said her goal is to make sure parents can control what their kids are exposed to at school. For example, “children shouldn’t be introduced or encouraged to think” about LGBTQ+ topics, she said. “That is something that children should not be encountering while they’re being educated. Schools need to be focused on the curriculum of ABCs and one, two, threes.” 

Other Moms for Liberty members use less politesse. One group this summer quoted Hitler in its newsletter; others have supported book bans or filed complaints against schools that assigned books about Martin Luther King Jr. or Ruby Bridges — the first Black child to integrate an all-white elementary school in Louisiana. 

Six-year-old Ruby Bridges in 1960, escorted by U.S. Marshals. She was the first child to integrate an all-white elementary school in Louisiana.

Former President Donald Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and other top Republicans appeared at the Moms for Liberty “Joyful Warriors” summit in Philadelphia this summer, an event that Allen also attended. The gathering featured more than a dozen high-profile hard-right speakers, who have variously accused public school teachers of being indoctrinators or groomers.

One speaker, the founder of Gays Against Groomers, railed against the “radicals” who are trying to “sexualize, indoctrinate and amputate the healthy body parts of children.”

A handout at Vigil-Stockton’s gathering in Eldorado, which the candidate said she got from Allen, argued that newly-passed legislation allows “predatory practices against our children.” 

Falsehoods in the mix

Variations on these themes are also being circulated by the New Mexico Republican Party and conservative groups around the state. In Las Cruces, for example, one group distributed inflammatory flyers claiming that parents rights are being taken away at schools and kids are being provided “direct access to abortion or transgender intervention (both chemical and surgical).”

In fact, school health care providers do not perform chemical or surgical interventions —  let alone do so without parental notification, according to the state’s Public Education Department. School-based health centers “do not provide abortions or gender-affirming care,” PED and the Department of Health wrote in a letter to school districts, which they sent out this summer “in response to recent inaccurate information disseminated by others.” 

The roughly 80 school health clinics in the state provide routine care such as treating asthma or sports injuries, or offering counseling, said Nancy Rodriguez, executive director for the New Mexico Alliance for School-Based Health Care

Rodriguez said the conversation is complicated by the fact that staffers who use a student’s preferred pronoun or name in a school clinic might be described — under its broadest definition — as giving gender-affirming health care.

“They may very well be trying to make their clinic a welcoming place for all kids, including kids from the LGBTQ community,” she said. “But that does not mean they’re doing specific specialty care around gender reassignment.” It’s a fear that people have, she added, “but it’s not a fear based in reality.”

Peggy Muller-Aragón, an incumbent running for Albuquerque Public Schools board in District 2, speaks at a candidate forum at APS headquarters. Nadav Soroker/Searchlight New Mexico

Doctors weigh in

Some of the fears are being circulated by figures like Republican Mark Ronchetti, an unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate in 2022 and U.S. Senate candidate in 2020. Children of any age, including 12-year-olds or 5-year-olds, can get “sex change care” in New Mexico without their parents being notified, he and his wife Krysty asserted on a podcast they host. 

But children cannot undergo gender-affirming surgery without parental consent, said Dr. Molly McClain, the medical director of the University of New Mexico Hospital’s Deseo Program and one of only a handful of specialists in the state who provide gender-affirming care for youth. Insurance, she noted, only covers the procedure for people over age 18.

Conservatives often point to a 2007 state law as something that’s allowing children aged 14 and older to access care like hormone treatment without parental consent. 

Medical experts and advocates in New Mexico said they can’t think of a single time this has ever happened. It is simply not considered best practice.

“I have NEVER given anyone under 18 hormone therapy without parental consent,” McClain told Searchlight New Mexico in an email. She said she doesn’t know of this occurring at any UNM clinic. For one, family support is a great benefit for young people, she said. If they don’t have support, they are “at higher risk of harm at home or of being kicked out of their home.” 

Stephen Cecco, a school board candidate in Albuquerque’s District 4, speaks at the candidate forum. Nadav Soroker/Searchlight New Mexico

Lawmakers join the fray

As the debate about parental rights has grown, so have legislative actions. This year alone, 62 parental-rights bills have been introduced in 24 states, according to Future Ed, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C. 

The movement’s most notable successes have been in Florida, where the Republican-backed “Don’t Say Gay” bill — formally known as the Parental Rights in Education Act — was enacted in 2022. The original law prohibited public schools from teaching or allowing discussions about sexual orientation or gender identity before the fourth grade; it was recently expanded to cover all K-12 students. 

Another Florida measure, the “Stop WOKE Act,” restricts teaching about racism and discrimination in colleges, universities and businesses. (Federal courts have recently blocked it as unconstitutional.) 

Moms for Liberty, a fast-growing group founded in Florida in 2021, was a vocal supporter of both laws. The organization uses social media to “target teachers and school officials, advocate for the abolition of the Department of Education, advance a conspiracy propaganda, and spread hateful imagery and rhetoric against the LGBTQ community,” according to a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center. 

New Mexico hasn’t been home to laws like Florida’s, but that hasn’t immunized it from the battle. This year, state Republicans mounted a heated parental rights campaign in reaction to three progressive bills passed by Democrats. 

A primary target was House Bill 7, which protects the right to abortion, reproductive health care and gender-affirming care across the state. “New Mexico Dems pass bill that would allow for mutilation of children in NM,” House Republicans tweeted after its passage. (The bill does not even mention children.)

The two other measures included Senate Bill 13, which extends legal protections for abortion, gender-affirming care providers and patients; and Senate Bill 397, which codifies school-based health clinics into law and allows the state Department of Health to fund them. 

After the bills became law, House Republicans urged parents to demand prior notification if anything at school — from a class or lesson to a book, website, assembly, club, activity or health clinic visit — might expose students to “transgender ideology,” gender-affirming care, abortion or contraception. They created a downloadable notification form to help parents join the fight.

Rep. Luis Terrazas, a Republican from Silver City who held a July press conference announcing the effort, said the form was “just a tool” and was generated in response to questions from parents. 

But ProgressNow New Mexico, a nonprofit that tracks and counters disinformation, sees the consent form — and its mishmash of health care and curriculum demands — as an avenue for the conservative movement to try to change the “whole dynamics of the school,” said Alissa Barnes, the group’s executive director. 

Republicans are using schools and school board races to perfect their messaging, gain support and “move elected officials up the pipeline to higher levels of office,” Barnes said. “They’re doing this through extreme disinformation.” 

For organizations like Equality New Mexico, a statewide LGBTQ advocacy group, the parental rights agenda has become a red herring — a way to advance an ideology that leaves vulnerable children more at risk while jeopardizing education as a whole.

Teachers have two jobs, said Marshall Martinez, the group’s executive director, who worked with Democrats to pass House Bill 7.  “One is to make a classroom safe and comfortable enough for their students to learn in,” he said. Second, they can start to teach.

“No trans or non-binary or queer or student of color — no young person —  can receive the education they deserve if they’re in a space where they don’t feel safe and comfortable,” he said.

An attendee takes notes at the candidate forum for the Albuquerque Public Schools Board. Nadav Soroker/Searchlight New Mexico

‘Extremely loud voices’

Republican-backed parental rights candidates are still a minority in New Mexico, Barnes believes, noting that voters in 2018 and 2022 elected a Democratic governor and majority Democrat legislature. 

But while conservatives have not taken over school boards, they are “extremely loud voices,” she said.

At least two of those voices have been loud enough to cost someone his job. Casey and Micayle “Myke” Petersen, Tijeras residents who’ve made a practice of going undercover to shoot videos of school employees, believe it’s their mission to expose what they call “radical gender ideology” in public schools. 

At a 2022 PED conference, the husband-and-wife team surreptitiously recorded Alamogordo Superintendent Ken Moore saying he taught his students about racism by “sneaking” the topic into the curriculum. In February, three days after they posted the video, the Alamogordo school board placed Moore on administrative leave. He has remained there since.

“When it comes to radical gender ideology, you are literally destroying their [children’s] bodies,” Casey Petersen told Searchlight. “And they’re blowing their brains out, they are killing themselves with pills.” The radicals in public schools “are murdering children right now by thrusting that ideology on them,” he said.

The Petersens’ videos don’t have a large audience: About half garner less than 500 views on YouTube. But the Republican Party has embraced the couple, boosting their public profile by inviting them to speaking gigs and podcasts.

In April, they moderated a panel attended by Republican Party Chair Steve Pearce and Rep. Stefani Lord (R-Sandia Park). One or both have spoken at Republican Party fundraisers along with Allen from Moms For Liberty; they’ve also appeared on podcasts hosted by Pearce and Ronchetti.

Exposing radicals is a key concern, Petersen said during an hour-and-a-half-long interview at a Chinese restaurant in Albuquerque. “They should know that they’re being watched, that they are going to be exposed. They should feel like their livelihood is on the line.”

A questionnaire at Vigil-Stockton’s campaign event included disinformation about state laws. Nadav Soroker/Searchlight New Mexico

School board hot seats

Livelihoods might not be on the line in the more than 100 school board races across New Mexico this fall. But advocates on both sides believe children’s futures are.

Moms for Liberty members — “mama bears,” in their parlance — often say they were spurred to action after schools closed during the pandemic. That’s when the “mama bear came out in me,” Allen said. Since then, the mother of six has been tapped for a bigger role in the group. 

After she attended the four-day Moms for Liberty summit in Philadelphia this summer, the national leadership asked her to be one of five ambassadors across the country, each tasked with traveling around their home state to spread the word about the organization. “I’m just proud that they thought of New Mexico as a place for doing this,” Allen told Searchlight.

Civil rights advocates and teachers’ unions describe Allen’s efforts in decidedly more negative terms. Groups like Moms for Liberty are “highly funded far-right national organizations hell-bent on importing the culture war from states like Florida to school boards and classrooms right here in New Mexico,” according to the Albuquerque Teachers Federation,

Already, the seven-member Albuquerque Public Schools board is more conservative than ever before in memory, said ATF President Ellen Bernstein. Over the four decades she’s been in the teacher’s union, she said she’s never experienced board members who were so “actively unsupportive and disrespectful to their employees.”  

Some board members, she said, resemble their counterparts in Florida — people who are “intolerant of kids, intolerant of accurate history and intolerant of thinking teachers.”

“Is that our board? Is that the kind of conservative we’re talking about? In some cases, yeah,” she said.

Whitney Holland, president of the American Federation of Teachers in New Mexico, shares the concerns.

“Social justice issues — all of those things that we have kind of safeguarded here — I’m worried that we’re going to take a step backwards,” she said.

Elise Kaplan moved to New Mexico in 2010 and was instantly enamored with the landscape, the people and the stories the state holds. She graduated from the University of New Mexico with a degree in journalism...