Tony was at church one Sunday when his boyfriend’s parents outed him as gay, walking over to his own parents and just blurting it out. They had found Snapchat messages the teenagers exchanged, and in an instant, Tony’s whole world fell apart.
His mother Carolyn, who was raised in the Southern Baptist Church and was her local church secretary at the time, was furious at her son. “She kept telling me that I was going to hell and that it was wrong, that I had to change my ways,” Tony, whose last name is being withheld for privacy reasons, told VICE News. Carolyn forced him into counseling sessions with his church’s pastor, who in turn told him that being gay was evil.
Tony’s mental health spiraled soon after being outed in January 2022. He stopped playing baseball, locked himself away in his bedroom, and eventually started cutting and stabbing himself with pencils. But he found some hope through the Rainbow Youth Project, an LGBTQ advocacy group whom he first contacted a month later, in February.
In late March, Carolyn gave her permission for Tony to start counseling with the group, and Tony felt that there was light at the end of the tunnel. Then, two months later, out of nowhere, his mother revoked her permission. Carolyn tells VICE News she’ll never forget how Tony responded to her ban: “Mom, you just killed me.”
Later that day, Tony attempted to die by suicide.
Carolyn’s decision didn’t spring out of nowhere: Moms for Liberty, an organization that calls itself a “parental rights group,” had convinced Carolyn that the Rainbow Youth Project was trying to “convince Tony to have his private parts removed and changed.”
Carolyn first contacted Moms for Liberty after she heard about them on Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News in February 2022, believing they could help her find a “cure” for her son’s homosexuality, she asked for advice on Twitter.
Over the next couple of months, Carolyn was bombarded with information and directed to posts from the group’s co-founder Tiffany Justice, all of which helped convince her to revoke permission for Tony’s counseling.
A couple of weeks after Tony attempted to die by suicide, completely out of the blue, a member of the Austin chapter of Moms for Liberty knocked on Carolyn’s door. The woman, who introduced herself as Rebecca and was wearing a Moms for Liberty shirt, spent two hours sitting in Carolyn’s living room, telling her about evil books in school libraries and the horrors of drag shows, according to Carolyn. Rebecca also showed Carolyn information from hate-filled social media accounts like LibsofTikTok and Gays Against Groomers and even information taken directly from the notorious doxing and trolling website Kiwi Farms.
At the end of their meeting, Carolyn told VICE News that the woman suggested she sue the Rainbow Youth Project for “damaging” her son.
While this was all happening, Tony was down the hall, locked away in his bedroom, where he had painted the windows black to block out the outside world. After the meeting, Carolyn took Tony to another “Christian therapy” session. Tony’s already fragile mental health worsened, and in July, he once again attempted to die by suicide. It was at this point that Carolyn realized the damage she was doing to her son.
“Looking back, it was never about Tony. It was about them.”
“They were trying to indoctrinate me to be a foot soldier for their cause, to hold bake sales and raise money, go to the school boards and stand up and fight against them,” Carolyn told VICE News. “Looking back, it was never about Tony. It was about them.”
The influence Moms for Liberty had on Carolyn and Tony’s lives was not an isolated incident. Since the group’s founding in Florida in 2020, its influence over local and national Republican politics has grown exponentially: It’s now a nation-wide movement with 260 chapters that claims to be a “grassroots” group working to protect students and defend parents’ rights. Its members are leading the charge on book-banning campaigns across the country and the group says it has helped install 275 of its favored candidates on school boards in 2022 alone, dozens of whom don’t have any children attending public schools in their districts.
The group’s methods, however, belie the wholesome vision it tries to project. VICE News has spoken to students, administrators, parents, superintendents, school board members, and teachers who have faced vicious attacks by Moms for Liberty. Their stories paint a picture of a group that conducts orchestrated harassment campaigns against individuals, that’s resulted in many fearing for their safety and, in some cases, their lives.
“The greatest impact that Moms for Liberty is having is imparting fear, within the teachers and the educators and in the parents,” Laura Leigh-Abby, co-founder of Defense of Democracy, a nonprofit group advocating for inclusive education, told VICE News. “The true impact they’re having is really not calculable, because I’m seeing teachers who are afraid to speak out because they don't want to be targeted.”
In response to a detailed list of questions about the specific allegations made against Moms for Liberty in this article, Moms for Liberty pointed VICE News to a press release issued earlier this month speaking about a vague “coordinated effort” aimed at discrediting the group.
“We reject any accusations of dangerous behavior made against us as false,” Moms for Liberty co-founders Tiffany Justice and Tina Descovich wrote in a joint statement. “We strongly reject any attempts to portray our members as violent or threatening.”
Tony has seen first-hand how widespread Moms for Liberty’s impact is. In a virtual peer group of 14 other young people organized by the Rainbow Youth Project: ”There are four others in there that have been through exactly what I have been, where Moms for Liberty and Fox News have totally pulled their parents into this same trap my mom went through.”
And Moms for Liberty is spreading its warped version of “parental rights” across the country.
According to the Moms for Liberty website, the group now has over 265 chapters in 43 states with a total membership of over 110,000. As the maps from the group’s website shows, the movement is strongest in its home state of Florida, but it is clear that Moms for Liberty is now very much a national organization, with dozens of chapters in blue states like New York and California.
In Pennsylvania, the leader of a local Moms for Liberty chapter allegedly hijacked a dead woman’s Facebook page to harass her enemies, including using the N-word and saying they should hang from a noose. In Arkansas, the head of communications of the Lonoke County chapter said that librarians should be “plowed down with a freaking gun.” In Chattanooga, Tennessee, a member of a local Moms for Liberty chapter harassed an opposing group, threatened to report them for child abuse, and called them “pedophile sympathizers.” In Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, police had to be called to a school board meeting after members of Moms for Liberty accused attendees of being “groomers” and wanting to show explicit pictures to children. In Charleston, South Carolina, a Moms for Liberty-affiliated member of the local school board publicly stated he would show up at his son’s teacher’s doorstep with a gun if the teacher came out as transgender.
The group’s incredible growth over the course of two years coincided with—and helped create—a wider national debate about the politicization of the education system. But the group’s beginnings were focused not on the national fight, but on a hyper-local dispute.
A rallying cry for like-minded parents
Initially, Moms for Liberty was seemingly created to harass just one woman.
Tina Descovich helped found the group after losing a school board re-election in Brevard County, Florida, to a woman named Jennifer Jenkins. “In the beginning, I thought this was a joke because when they came to our school board meetings, I used to call them, jokingly, ‘Moms Against Jennifer Jenkins’ because they didn’t have this cohesive thought or mission,” Jenkins told VICE News.
But that quickly changed. As Moms for Liberty grew, Descovich was joined by Tiffany Justice, a former school board member in neighboring Indian River County, and Bridget Ziegler, a member of the Sarasota County School Board, and the trio officially incorporated Moms for Liberty as a 501(c)4 nonprofit in January 2021.
Ziegler’s involvement was key for the group’s evolution: She was deeply entwined with the GOP machine both locally and nationally. Her husband is the chair of the Florida GOP, and Ziegler has ties to national organizations like the influential Leadership Institute, an advocacy group that trains conservative activists. She was also photographed at her election night victory party last August alongside two members of the Proud Boys. Ziegler has denied any close links to the street-fighting group, labeling them “a menace” after she appeared in the photo with them. (Disclosure: Gavin McInnes, who founded the Proud Boys in 2016, was a co-founder of VICE in 1994. He left the company in 2008 and has had no involvement since then.)
Ziegler, Justice, and Descovich, who didn’t respond to VICE News’ request for comment for this article, quickly latched onto the titanic struggle over mask mandates that was raging across the country and used it as a rallying cry for like-minded parents.
They still remained focused, however, on Jenkins. At first, the group attacked her during board meetings over her support of COVID restrictions. Then, members of Moms for Liberty, which at this point had a few dozen members, began getting in Jenkins’ face at the meetings, recording videos of her and posting them on their Facebook page, where they would mock her.
Weeks later, Jenkins noticed that members of extremist groups were showing up at the meetings and standing with Moms for Liberty.
In February 2021, things turned nasty. Descovich posted the school district’s LGBTQ guideline document, which provides privacy rights to trans students, on her personal Facebook page and claimed the schools were implementing it behind people’s backs.
The document wasn’t actually new. The school board had been working on it for over a year, even when Descovich was a part of the school board. She’d even had meetings with the superintendent about the guidelines, Jenkins said. Mark Mullins, the superintendent at the time, did not respond to a request for comment.
“She disseminated it to the entire community as if it was brand new, because of one Democrat who’s on the board, and she spread it on Moms for Liberty and it created this insane rage in our community,” Jenkins said. “And that’s really when it started to get crazy.”
The outrage came to a head at a board meeting in March, which Jenkins described as a “mini-insurrection.”
LGBTQ students and their parents attending the meeting had to walk through a gauntlet of protesters shouting “shame on you.” Video footage from the event shows a truck with American flags driving up and down the street outside the building, with the driver shouting through a speaker, calling those protesting to support the rights of LGBTQ students “sick pedophiles” and “child molesters.”
“If you thought January 6 was bad, wait until you see what we have for you!”
“I became the focal point of their outrage because I was defending our LGBTQ students and staff. I wasn’t the only one on the board defending them, but I was definitely not afraid to say it loud and proud,” Jenkins said.
In April, the protests moved from the school board meetings to Jenkins’ house.
A group of protesters shouted the word “pedophiles” at the house. At one point, the crowd mistook two friends of Jenkins for her and her husband, shouting at them. In Jenkins’ recollection, the protesters shouted: “We’re coming for you. We’re coming at you like a freight train! We are going to make you beg for mercy. If you thought January 6 was bad, wait until you see what we have for you!”
A spokesperson for Moms for Liberty denied the group had any involvement in the protests at Jenkins’ house, pointing to previous comments from Descovich given to Florida Today in 2021: “First and foremost, Jennifer Jenkins is a mom and it’s unacceptable to have that kind of behavior in front of her home," Descovich said. "I don’t, I don’t agree with it. I don’t support it in any way at all and it’s just unacceptable behavior. It’s not good for our community."
While Jenkins said she mostly didn’t fear for her own life, she remembered one incident where a man was protesting at her house and then left to go to a school board meeting. On the way to the meeting, he filmed himself and claimed that he was going to shoot the entire school board. Nicholas Carrington did not respond to a request for comment and the charges against him were ultimately dropped by police.
“That freaked me out because we don’t have any metal detectors or protection in place for our school board meeting,” Jenkins said.
The harassment was nonstop. At board meetings Moms for Liberty members would shout and intimidate Jenkins as she walked to and from her car, to the point where she had to be escorted by security. During school board meetings, trucks adorned with Trump stickers parked outside her house, where her husband was at home with their four-year-old daughter.
“I cried every single day,” Jenkins said, describing the difficulty of this period. “It was awful.”
The Moms for Liberty group denied being involved in the protests at Jenkins’ house, but Jenkins said she saw members of the group standing outside her home. At one protest in September 2021, Jenkins said one protester shouted: “Be careful, your mommy hurts little kids!” to her daughter. Others chanted “You’re going to jail.” Her neighbors informed Jenkins they had seen protesters brandishing weapons in the church parking lot behind her house.
The next day Jenkins and her husband found a large “FU” burned into the lawn with weed killer.
Hours later, a man knocked on her door and identified himself as an investigator from the Florida Department of Children and Families. Someone had made a false complaint that she was abusing her daughter. The investigator sat at her kitchen table and asked how she disciplined her daughter before accompanying her to the play date her daughter was on at the time to check for nonexistent burn marks beneath the child’s clothes. Jenkins’ account of this is backed up by emails from the department reviewed by VICE News.
The never-ending torrent of abuse meant that an extreme situation became normalized. “I’ve always been able to talk about it so freely and openly because I’m so desensitized by what happened to me because it just became the norm,” Jenkins said. “I couldn’t get away from it. It was all day, every day.”
“It’s absolute bullshit, but they have a great message”
While all of this was happening to Jenkins, Moms for Liberty continued to grow. It was beginning to get national media attention, with fawning profiles of the group claiming it was “channeling a powerful frustration among conservative mothers.”
The group quickly expanded beyond Florida, and began harassing people across the country. By December 2021, the group claimed 70,000 members across 165 chapters in 33 states. Moms for Liberty does not state on its website what it considers a “member,” but it appears that they are counting all those who are subscribed to the Facebook groups established for each of their chapters.
While critics of the group slam the organization’s actions, they can admit that the group’s numbers swelled so quickly because it was delivering a very powerful and targeted message.
“Part of what makes us so successful is pretending, ‘We’re moms, we’re a community, we’re just grassroots, we want to help protect your children.’ It’s absolute bullshit, but they have a great message,” Leigh-Abby from Defense of Democracy said. “There’s a reason they’re growing, because they’re smart.”
In Livingston County, Michigan, a chapter allegedly engaged with extreme methods similar to those of the original group, according to court documents and first-hand accounts of those targeted.
During a September 2021 board meeting to discuss mask mandates, Jennifer Smith, the chapter chair of the local Moms for Liberty group, sent the school board a chilling message: “We are coming for you. Take that as a threat. Call the FBI. I don’t care.”
One parent at the meeting, Sarah Cross, took up Smith on her offer and called the FBI. As a result, Smith was contacted by an FBI agent who was tracking possible domestic terrorism cases linked to school board meetings. A couple of months later, Cross was threatened directly.
“My first encounter with Moms for Liberty was at a school board meeting in 2021 when a parent threatened to punch me in the face,” Cross, a lawyer and the mother of a biracial student in the district, told VICE News about her encounters with the group.
Cross was at the Brighton Area School District meeting to speak out against an email a school administrator had sent comparing the masking of children to prevent the spread of COVID to the Holocaust. At the meeting, Cross asked a group of people wearing Moms for Liberty shirts to stop interrupting the speakers and talking amongst themselves, which is when one of the members threatened her.
But this was just the beginning of the harassment Cross faced from Smith.
“The local chapter leader”—Smith—“has become obsessed with me,” Cross told VICE News. “I had a restraining order against her for stalking. She’s made completely baseless allegations that I stalked and harassed her children and that I got her husband fired from her job. She shares my home address with people in the community because she wants people to harass me.”
Smith did not respond to a request for comment from VICE News.
Cross said that a number of other strange things have occurred as well: Someone appeared to have cut the cables to her outdoor lights; a nail was placed behind the tire of her car; someone tried to steal her dog, twice; and someone parked across the road and took pictures of her family.
Cross has even installed security cameras on her property, because of the harassment she believes stems directly from the Moms for Liberty group.
“My daughter is afraid to go outside,” Cross said. “She gets flipped off when she goes out to get the mail.”
Cross blames Moms for Liberty and believes that acceptance of the abusive behavior by adults is emboldening students in the area’s schools to follow suit. “My daughter has been called the N-word in school,” Cross said, adding that another student had a swastika drawn on their back.
“It’s not gonna go away,” Cross said. “It’s just gonna get worse. People don’t realize what they’re about, how powerful they are and the momentum that’s gaining and they’re not going to stop.”
Smith, the head of the local Moms for Liberty chapter, doesn’t appear to have been inconvenienced by these accusations. Instead, she’s been empowered further: Smith was elected as head of the Livingston County GOP in December 2022.
“Fewer and fewer reasonable people are willing to run”
One of those surprised by Moms for Liberty’s presence in the more liberal corners of America is Dianne Jones, who successfully ran for re-election to the Fremont Unified School Board in Alameda last year against Moms for Liberty-backed candidate Jennifer Kavouniaris.
“I live in the Bay Area in California, one of the most progressive places in the country. If a candidate like this can gain traction here, I’m nervous for the rest of the country,” Jones told VICE News. “The process of running against this candidate was grueling and, at times, frightening,” Jones said. “During the campaign I was called a tyrant, an extremist, a Marxist, a ‘groomer,’ and a danger to children. My family had to take extra security precautions.”
As well as attacking Jones publicly, Kavouniaris also sought to derail her opponent’s campaign privately, sending direct messages that called attention to the fact that Jones’ eldest child was transgender and had just qualified as a teacher. “There is a fine line between pride and grooming,” Kavouniaris wrote in one text message reviewed by VICE News, referencing a picture of Jones’ child in their classroom, which featured a trans flag.
When Kavouniaris lost, rather than conceding, she circulated voter fraud conspiracy theories and on her social media accounts continues to attempt to undermine social and emotional learning and sex ed curriculums in her local public schools—even though she has admitted her own daughter attends private school.
Kavouniaris did not respond to VICE News’ request for comment.
The COVID pandemic and resultant mask mandates have made school boards the frontline of the national battle playing out between the right and the left, and places that were traditionally safe and peaceful have become difficult and dangerous, Jones says.
“Fewer and fewer reasonable people are willing to run which is leaving a void for Moms for Liberty candidates to fill. The bottom line is that Jen and other Moms for Liberty candidates are inciting people with conspiracy theories and inflammatory accusations about grooming that put trustees, teachers, and LGBTQ students in real danger.”
“They felt I had an agenda”
Larry Leaven has dedicated almost his entire working life to public education, working as a teacher and a principal in New York and setting up an English-language school in Hong Kong before returning, in August 2021, to New York State, where he was appointed superintendent for the Florida Union Free School District.
But things quickly turned sour when a small cohort of local Moms for Liberty members began attending school board meetings to berate Leaven in person while simultaneously mounting an online harassment campaign calling for his resignation.
The attacks focused on the fact that Leaven is an openly gay man, and also highlighted that he had attended an event with author and religion professor Anthea Butler, who was speaking about her book, White Evangelical Racism.
One of the group’s biggest criticisms of Leaven related to the availability of the book Gender Queer, which was actually available in the school district before he was ever appointed. The attacks got worse after Leaven was invited to read to a group of kindergarten children at a local library and he chose to read the book Pink is for Boys.
“The [Moms for Liberty] group, because they have some type of mental illness, they felt I had an agenda,” Leaven told VICE News. “They took all of this as a threat and something that I was bringing to the district and that I was going to destroy the district.”
“I thought I knew how to handle these types of people because I grew up with it,” Leaven said, who was raised and educated in the white evangelical community.
But in November 2022, just over a year after taking up the role, he resigned.
“I’m absolutely shocked at how quickly they have been able to manifest and to really destroy communities, but I’m really not surprised,” Leaven said. “I don’t want to give Donald Trump more credit, but I really think that when leaders lead with hate and with violent comments, I think that gives permission to people and I think this group, it made it easier for them to be able to do this to the community.”
Leaven was not the only superintendent who was forced out as a result of Moms for Liberty’s attack campaigns.
Last November, two hours after being sworn in, six Moms for Liberty-backed candidates in Berkeley County School District, South Carolina fired Deon Jackson, the district’s first Black superintendent. The group also fired the district’s lawyer, banned critical race theory, and set up a committee to decide which books and materials should be banned from schools.
“Six new board members clean house first night on the job,” the administrators of the group’s Facebook page wrote the same night.
Weeks later in Sarasota County, Florida, the school board, which is now chaired by Moms for Liberty co-founder Ziegler, ousted Superintendent Brennan Asplen, who guided the district through the COVID-19 pandemic and Hurricane Ian, without giving a reason. In Brevard County, public schools Superintendent Mark Mullins was forced out of his position as a result of Moms for Liberty-backed candidates taking control of the school board.
And it’s not just superintendents being forced out of their positions. Alexander Ingram, who worked in a public school in Jacksonville, Florida, resigned last year because of his school board’s failure to defend him against attacks from Moms for Liberty.
“I became a teacher to nurture young minds, and I think every teacher recently has had to imagine the scenario of what it would be like to shield their children from a hail of bullets in the event of an active shooter,” Ingram told VICE News. “So it is particularly hurtful when Moms for Liberty, and other far-right extremists come to school board members and call teachers, in the room, ‘groomers’ and ‘pedophiles.’”
Ingram was also doxxed by members of the group because of his off-duty activism around removing local Confederate monuments. “I received death threats like, ‘he shouldn’t be breathing, much less teaching,’ as well as people emailing my principal and our superintendent that I should be fired for ‘indoctrinating children’ and teaching ‘CRT.”
“I received death threats like, ‘he shouldn’t be breathing, much less teaching.’”
Even those whom Moms for Liberty profess to be protecting have denounced their methods.
“As a high school senior, I have witnessed first-hand the influence of Moms for Liberty and their fear mongering tactics,” Chloe Boggs, the president of the Youth Chapter of Women’s Voices of Southwest Florida, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting reproductive rights, told VICE News. “Countless students have explained to me their experiences with racism, antisemitism, and homophobia following the rise in political tension within Florida school systems. My peers and I are forced into the middle of all of this. We have watched our education become politicized day after day. We have no choice but to fight for our right to a safe, honest, and inclusive education in any way we can.”
Despite all of the damage Moms for Liberty members are doing across the country, the group has continued to grow its membership and as its influence in the Republican Party, as education shapes up to be one of the leading topics during the 2024 presidential election.
As Trump waded into the education wars last month by telling a crowd in Iowa that he would ban the teaching of critical race theory in schools and "bring back parental rights into our schools" if reelected as president, Moms for Liberty said that it would not play a formal role during the 2024 campaign for any one candidate, but given the close ties between the group and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis—who spoke at its first national convention—it seems he’ll have Moms for Liberty in his corner.
“He has made a lot of decisions to make a lot of moms happy in this country,” Descovich told Reuters last month.
Despite Descovich’s claims that they are planning to stay out of the political sphere, the group’s members continue to harass and intimidate those standing in the way of their agenda.
Having the investigator for the Florida Department of Children and Families called to her home was a breaking point for Jenkins, who spoke out during a board meeting in October 2021. Footage of her speech quickly went viral and gained national media attention.
While the harassment of Jenkins has subsided, it has never fully gone away.
“I don’t think it’ll ever rise to the same level again, but I do fear that it is starting all over again, but in a different way, because they feel empowered and emboldened by two new members that are on the board,” Jenkins said referring to the election last November of two Moms for Liberty board members. “The two people who got elected are super extreme.”
One of those board members, Megan Wright, told VICE News she had nothing to do with the protests at Jenkins’ house, adding: “If Mrs. Jenkins thinks it’s “super extreme” to want only biological females to use the girls bathroom and biological males to use the boys bathroom, then I am guilty. “ The other board member, Gene Trent, did not respond to VICE News’ request for comment.
Tony, who is now 19, is still trying to recover and reclaim his life. Thanks to Rainbow Youth Project, he’s managed to move from his home in Texas to San Diego, where he’s back in school and playing baseball again. He’s in counseling and hasn’t self-harmed in four months. As for his relationship with his mother, it’s still a work in progress.
“A lot of people hold her responsible for what happened and she is partially responsible. We’ve had that discussion and she knows how I feel about that,” Tony said. “But she’s really trying. Our relationship is getting stronger. We’re not there yet, but it’s getting stronger.”
Carolyn says the memory of finding her son lying unconscious on the floor of his bedroom after taking an overdose will never leave her, and while she accepts responsibility for her actions, she knows they were based on information given to her by Moms for Liberty.
“I’m responsible because I was literally putting him second to all of this, for lack of a better term, bullshit, that they were giving to me, and I will never do that again. Ever,” Carolyn said.
“They are preying on people and when you have a question and you’re trying to save your kid, they took advantage of me and I honestly believe they do that with other parents.”
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, help is available. Call 1-800-273-8255 to speak with someone now or text START to 741741 to message with the Crisis Text Line.