Election 2024

Support Us

Moms critical of policies, books related to LGBTQ+ students seek school board seats

The appearance of Moms for Liberty in Clark County is bringing new attention to otherwise low-profile school board races.
Rocio Hernandez
Rocio Hernandez
EducationElection 2024K-12 Education

Christiane Mersch sees herself and other conservative, Christian parents as warriors. 

During a recent town hall at Henderson church, she recruited attendees into her fight. Their enemy: the Clark County School District (CCSD), more specifically books and policies within the district that they say are part of a conspiracy to encourage students to question their gender identities and sexualities. 

For the past nine months, Mersch, who serves as the chair of the local chapter of Moms for Liberty, a controversial national parental rights organization, and other members have pushed to remove books with LGBTQ+ themes from school libraries and revoke a district policy that’s part of a state law that’s meant to support students of diverse gender identities. 

Now, the group is looking to make headway in its crusade by supporting members and other candidates aligned with its mission who are looking to join the Clark County School Board and the State Board of Education: Vice Chair Lorena Biassotti, senior adviser Timothy Underwood, member Lydia Dominguez, charter school teacher Rachel Puaina and CCSD parent Frank Friends. 

“If we can vote for people that have common sense and have a new direction on the board, we can work together with the community for the success of our kids, focusing on academics, not indoctrination,” said Mersch, whose own children are not in the district’s schools but who sees herself as a stakeholder in the district because her taxes support it. 

Local education advocates have called out the chapter for its “hateful comments'' suggesting transgender individuals are mentally ill or disabled. One school board trustee referred to the chapter as a “cancer” that shouldn't be allowed to spread; others said they worry about what effect this movement will have on the mental health and safety of LGBTQ+ students in the district. 

“We need to wake up, because if we fall asleep, they’re going to come in like a swarm,” said trustee candidate Kamilah Bywaters, who has asked voters to support her in part to avoid Moms for Liberty-aligned candidates from gaining a foothold on the board. 

It’s the latest example of partisan views entering nonpartisan school board races in Nevada, but it’s by no means the first. Experts say schools have long been a battleground for social issues, from evolution and sex education to desegregation. 

Tuesday’s primary will be a test of whether the group can translate the waves it makes in school board meeting public comment periods into real political power.

Moms for Liberty Clark County Chapter Vice Chair Lorena Biassotti, right, speaks with an attendee of a town hall meeting held at the First Baptist Church of Henderson in Henderson on April 23, 2024. (Rocio Hernandez/The Nevada Independent)

Mobilizing moms

Moms for Liberty was founded in 2021 by three Florida moms and current and former school board members opposed to school closures, mask mandates and other COVID safety measures. Today, the organization says it has 130,000 members in 300 chapters across 48 states and has been linked to Republicans such as former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who both spoke at the organization’s 2023 conference

As a 501(c)4 nonprofit, the organization isn’t required to disclose which donors helped it bring in its $2.1 million in revenue in 2022, but The Associated Press found that the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C., and The Leadership Institute, which has trained conservative politicians from former Vice President Mike Pence to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), have been donors or event sponsors.

During the past three years, the organization has targeted curriculum around race, gender and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). This year, the national organization said it’s joining lawsuits against changes to Title IX — a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education programs and activities — that would clarify that gender identity is covered by laws prohibiting sex discrimination. 

Last week, national leaders announced they are looking to spend more than $3 million in advertising targeting voters in presidential battleground states such as Nevada. 

As the organization’s platform has expanded, so too has the scrutiny about it. 

In 2023, the Southern Poverty Law Center labeled the Moms For Liberty as an anti-government extremist group. The organization had to remove two Kentucky chapter officials from their positions after they were linked to members of the far-right Proud Boys group, and it recently had to fend off a sex scandal tied to one of its co-founders who’s no longer involved with the organization. 

But Moms for Liberty has also seen successes. 

Last year, the organization was credited for being part of efforts to push out superintendents at nine of the 17 school districts where it managed to flip school boards. 

Moms for Liberty Clark County Chapter Chair Christiane Mersch poses for a photo outside of a school board meeting on May 9, 2024. (Rocio Hernandez/The Nevada Independent)

Moms for Liberty officially expanded into Clark County last August. The local chapter, which leaders said grew to 800 members last month, is led by Mersch, a Brazilian immigrant, and Biassotti, who’s currently running to be on the Clark County School Board. 

Mersch said prior to Moms for Liberty, she worked as a staff member at Women’s Resource Medical Center, and still serves as a board member of First Choice Pregnancy Services. Both are crisis pregnancy centers — organizations focused on deterring women from getting abortions but that critics say can confuse consumers who may think they are regulated medical facilities. 

Mersch said she’s also been involved in philanthropy, primarily fundraising money for nonprofit organizations fighting against sex trafficking and sex abuse, causes that she's passionate about as a survivor of sex trafficking.

While she doesn't have kids in CCSD schools, Mersch said she became concerned about the state of education at the district after seeing how behind students who transferred to the private Christian elementary school where she teaches were in reading. 

Biassotti, who also goes by her maiden name, Cardenas, was a frequent protester at school board meetings during the pandemic fighting against the district’s school closures and mask mandates. She’s also the founder of My Children’s Advocate, an organization that, like Moms for Liberty, equates support and health care for transgender individuals to abuse and makes accusations online and at school board meetings that trans rights supporters are pedophiles and groomers. 

Biassotti said two of her children attend CCSD schools, and another two attend private Christian schools. But she said she doesn't think that all parents should have to move their children out of CCSD and into private schools to “protect them” from materials and policies they don’t agree with. 

“If you have to take your children to a private school, and pay a tuition on top of your tax-paid education … you’re paying twice as much,” Biassotti said. 

Mersch said regardless of whether chapter members have students in the district, they should, as taxpayers, all have a say in the district’s policies and what’s being taught to students. But she said speaking out is especially important for CCSD parents who she said have the right to protect their children. 

If the school board candidates the chapter is supporting succeed and are elected to the board, Mersch said she wants to see the board repeal policies related to school libraries and support plans for students with diverse gender identities. She said the chapter also wants more transparency around what’s being taught in CCSD schools. 

“Parents have the fundamental rights under our Constitution to guide and direct the education of their kids, and that means they need to be notified about these materials, and they need to have transparency about what the kids are being taught,” Mersch said. “They're hurting our parental rights right now when they try to hide.”

Moms for Liberty Clark County chapter Chair Christiane Mersch, right, speaks at a town hall meeting held at the First Baptist Church of Henderson in Henderson on April 23, 2024. (Rocio Hernandez/The Nevada Independent)

Partisanship in K-12 public schools

Political division in K-12 education spaces is nothing new, said University of Southern California education policy professor Julie Marsh.

Past hot button K-12 education issues have included debates on the teaching of evolution and sex education. In the 1950s, school desegregation during the civil rights movement drew angry mobs of white community members attempting to prevent Black students from integrating in previously all-white schools. 

Marsh said this latest wave of partisanship in school board elections mirrors the polarization at the national level that grew as Trump rose to power, and took further root during the pandemic. In recent years, Marsh has seen political figures such as Republican governors DeSantis and Glenn Youngkin of Virginia and ex-Trump adviser Steve Bannon, who’s also allied with Moms for Liberty, use school culture war issues to energize their base. 

Marsh and other experts say that groups such as Moms for Liberty and politicians aligned with them have used parents’ frustrations about mask mandates and school closure as part of their effort to erode support for public schools and promote school vouchers, which direct state funds that would otherwise go to public schools to private schools.  

“That might be the ultimate goal — you do this fear mongering to drive parents out of public schools and build support for some of these other policies,” Marsh said. 

Book censorship

One of the local chapter’s top goals includes removing books that contain themes of gender identity and sexuality from the CCSD school libraries that carry them. One of these books that the group points to during public comment periods at school board meetings is Gender Queer, a memoir about the author, Maia Kobabe’s, journey to accepting Kobabe’s nonbinary and asexual identities. The book includes brief scenes that depict masturbation and oral sex. 

According to a public records request by the chapter to the district, Gender Queer is in eight high schools’ libraries. Chapter members and supporters have had their mics cut off while reading passages from the book containing explicit language. 

As a survivor of sexual assault, Mersch said these books remind her of the pornography that she was exposed to by her abuser. 

“When I see books like this, showing pornography to kids, it’s preparing their minds to be raped,” she said.

American Libraries Association President Emily Drabinski, who identifies as a lesbian, pushed back against Mersch’s claim that books such as Gender Queer that deal with human sexuality are pornographic. Rather, she said it's a book with a positive message about being comfortable with who you are and can save the lives of youth who are struggling to find support and come to terms with their identities. 

“To reduce that book to the presence of a penis or the fact of masturbation … is insulting to the content and insulting to the librarians that chose the book for their readers,” Drabinski said.

Mersch said that so far, the chapter’s attempts to remove books have been unsuccessful, meaning the books will stay in school libraries without any restrictions. 

“They decided to keep these inappropriate books in open shelves, the same books I can not read at school board meetings,” Mersch said in an emailed statement. 

Clark County school librarian Nichole Beer and Clark County School Board Trustee Lisa Guzman said they fear if the candidates backed by Moms for Liberty prevail in this election cycle, they will remove any books they perceive as being inappropriate, including books that touch on diverse identities. 

“To a reading specialist, any book that makes the child want to read is a good book,” Guzman said. 

The group’s presence and rhetoric toward LGBTQ+ communities at school board meetings have made Jenna Robertson, president and co-founder of Nevada Alliance for Student Diversity, and other parents of gay and transgender youth feel these spaces are no longer safe for their children. It led Robertson to keeping her teen daughter, who’s an advocate for student rights at school board meetings, from going in person. 

“She would love to go to these meetings and be heard more often,” she said. “I discourage her because I just don't think it's necessary to hear the things that are said in those meetings.”

Two Clark County School Board trustees, Guzman and Linda Cavazos, have also raised concerns about the local chapter. 

In a September post on X (formerly known as Twitter), Cavazos called the group “a cancer” that shouldn’t be allowed to spread in the community.  

Earlier this month, Guzman, who’s not seeking re-election after her term concludes at the end of the year, wrote about the group on X and said the candidates the chapter is backing “will hurt our children, not follow the law and take the district in the wrong direction.” 

School board candidates such as Matthew Tramp and Kamilah Bywaters, who are running in the nine-way District E race that includes Biassotti, have urged voters to support their campaign to keep Moms for Liberty candidates off the school board. 

The criticisms, which Mersch considers to be bullying, hasn’t deterred the chapter, and My Children’s Advocate has fired back at Bywaters and other opponents on social media. 

Moms’ influence waning?

The primary election will be the Clark County chapter’s first real test of how much success they’ve had in gathering support in Southern Nevada. 

Researchers at the Brookings Institute, a nonprofit public policy organization based in Washington, D.C., believe that the organization’s influence on a national level may be waning based on the win rate of candidates backed by Moms for Liberty nationwide during the 2023 election cycle, 33 percent, compared with the 2022 cycle, 47 percent.

With less than a year under its belt, Mersch said the chapter is still working on gathering momentum. Overt support from elected officials and more established groups has been mixed — Nevada System of Higher Education Regent Patrick Boylan attended the chapter’s town hall in April after members supported him amid backlash over comments he made against female trans athletes. Mersch said CCSD Trustee Katie Williams has also shown the group support, although Williams did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Local conservative state lawmakers, such as Assemblyman Toby Yurek (R-Henderson) and Sen. Carrie Buck (R-Henderson), either declined to comment or did not respond to a request for comment on the chapter. Power 2 Parent, an organization that supports school choice and parental rights and opposes certain sex education policies, said it’s not affiliated with the chapter. 

Contributions and expenses reports show none of the school board or state board candidates the chapter is supporting are the fundraising leaders in their respective races, except for Dominguez. 

Dominguez’s report shows the District B candidate raised $2,700 in the first quarter of the year, but she loaned her campaign $2,000 of that amount. The seat is currently held by Williams, who is not running for re-election and who appointed Dominguez to the district’s Attendance Zoning Advisory Committee. 

Mersch remains focused on the chapter’s next steps. In addition to expanding the chapter’s membership, she hopes to take the fight to the state Legislature and push for legislation to expand parental rights in schools and allow certain books to be more easily removed from school libraries. 

“I just want parents to know they have the fundamental right to defend their right, not the government’s, to educate their children,” she said. “So I want to grow in all the communities that I can.”


Featured Videos