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News / Politics

Righteous mother or right-wing zealot? The soccer mom leading California’s parental rights movement

By Priscella Vega, Los Angeles Times
Published: December 3, 2023, 6:00am

LOS ANGELES — Sonja Shaw is a devoted mother, motivated by an unstable upbringing to be a tigress when it comes to defending the welfare of her own young daughters and taking on a public school system that has strayed from its educational mission.

Or: Sonja Shaw is a small-town bigot, basking in the celebrity she’s attained as a mouthpiece for Christian evangelicals intent on infusing their anti-government, anti-LGBTQ+ mind-set into a public school system that by law is bound to be secular and multicultural.

Same woman. Two polarizing descriptions. And if you spend much time in the rolling contours of the Chino Valley in suburban San Bernardino County, California, you’re likely to hear both expressed in ardent tones.

Shaw, 41, is the self-described soccer mom who has become the face of a conservative campaign to enact school board policies requiring teachers and principals to notify parents if their children indicate they are exploring gender identity. She was elected last fall to the Chino Valley Unified school board and quickly named president, part of a small wave of evangelical Christians and far-right candidates swept onto school boards in November 2022 in pockets of California that railed against COVID-19-related school closures, mask mandates and mass vaccination efforts.

After a statewide measure that would have mandated schools “out” gender-nonconforming students to their parents met a quick death in the Legislature this year, Shaw pressed the issue in the Chino Valley Unified School District, which in July became the first district in the state to adopt a parental notification policy. It requires district staff to inform parents within three days if they become aware of a student asking to go by names or pronouns or to use bathrooms that do not match their biological sex.

Several more districts, including Murrieta Valley Unified and Temecula Valley Unified in Riverside County, Orange Unified in Orange County and Rocklin Unified in Placer County quickly followed suit.

California Attorney General Rob Bonta has since sued Chino Valley, contending the notification policy violates state privacy laws when it comes to students and gender identity. A San Bernardino County Superior Court judge has blocked Chino Valley from enacting broad portions of the policy while the case is being litigated.

Nonetheless, California’s so-called parental rights movement continues to grow in volume and visibility, attracting an odd and sometimes menacing fellowship of Christian evangelicals, vaccine conspiracy theorists, anti-government militias and more moderate parents who believed they lost their voice during the prolonged COVID-19 shutdowns.

The call for parental notification policies has expanded into a push to ban Pride flags on school campuses, reject school diversity programs and purge classrooms and libraries of books that explore gender and sexuality or feature LGBTQ+ figures. Teachers and counselors who advise LGBTQ+ student groups have been cast as “groomers” looking to confuse students about their gender identity and sexual leanings.

With the parental notification policy temporarily blocked in Chino Valley, Shaw’s latest target involves books. Her revision of the district’s library media center policy, approved Nov. 16, allows parents to challenge “non-curricular reading materials.” If parents believe a book contains “sexually obscene content,” they can request its removal. If a resolution isn’t reached between the parent and school principal, the complaint would move to the assistant superintendent of curriculum and, if necessary, a review committee. Appeals may be made to the school board, which has final say.

While there is debate over whether Shaw is being primed by the Christian right, artfully parroting its conservative playbook, or whether she’s a Joan of Arc crusader appointed by destiny, there’s no question she has become a focal point in the movement. She is a featured speaker at rallies around the state and a regular guest on the conservative media circuit. Her takedown of state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond when he appealed to the Chino Valley board not to approve its notification policy continues to circulate.

“You’re in Sacramento proposing things that pervert children,” she told him, before ordering Thurmond back to his seat for exceeding the time limit for public comment.

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Shaw will tell you that she’s surprised to find herself in the spotlight and that she is simply trying to walk the path God laid out after calling her to run for school board last year.

“At the end of the day, I’m very clear on who I answer to, who I ask for protection from, and that’s God,” Shaw said in an interview. “At the end of the day, people can be upset either way, but I have to answer to God and I kneel before him.”

Greg Abdouch, who runs Not On Our Watch, an Inland Empire organization rallying evangelical Christians to assert more control in public schools, has become Shaw’s friend and advisor since meeting her two years ago. He describes Shaw’s ascent in biblical terms, a moral force taking on Gov. Gavin Newsom and other state Democratic leaders he compares to demonic forces pushing an agenda that undermines parental authority.

“It’s a spiritual battle,” Abdouch said, “and she’s God’s warrior.”

But the teachers and parents concerned about Shaw’s rise see something more pernicious at work: an affable, relatable mom — maybe in over her head — carrying water for a far-right agenda that rejects the walls between church and state in public schools and undermines decades of advancement in acceptance of LGBTQ+ people.

The board’s new direction has inserted a wedge in the local teachers union and, according to some district employees, is swallowing up attention that should be focused on building repair needs, teacher vacancies and curriculum updates. One teacher compared the tensions percolating on school campuses — where Shaw regularly drops in for classroom visits — with the New Testament’s Last Supper, at which Jesus shared his final meal with his apostles and predicted one of his followers would betray him. Who among them secretly supports Shaw, and will they out teachers and administrators who criticize her?

“It used to be where [teachers] were supposed to create a safe learning environment, and now that’s taking this spin of grooming. And we have to remove Pride flags, because we’re convincing the students to be gay,” said Steven Frazer, a biology teacher at Ruben S. Ayala High School. “It’s just this bizarre thing that’s happened in real life.”

On a September evening, Shaw stood on the sidelines of Chino High’s football field. She was part of a group of invited guests, flanked by fellow trustee Andrew Cruz, members of the Chino Valley American Legion post and school resource officers. Together, along with those in the stands, they saluted the American flag to kick off the game between the Chino Cowboys and Valley Christian Defenders.

Even as the game unfolded, Shaw remained a center of attention, making easy conversation with the admirers and well-wishers drawn into her orbit. A steady stream of school employees and community members made their way to the field to introduce themselves. Shaw gave each her full attention, and people seemed to open up in the strength of her gaze. Teachers shared how they came to join the education field, and American Legion members thanked her for her service. She was quick to return the compliments and urged them to reach out if she could offer support.

Shaw mingled with the school resource officers, law enforcement personnel charged with keeping schools safe. She bonded with Officer Matt Solano over their love of God and Chino’s small-town charm. He shared hardships his family had experienced that brought him to the community.

Shaw empathized and explained she had lost her mother at a young age and now looks after her ailing father.

“God works in amazing ways,” Solano said.

Chino High Principal John Miller looked on as Shaw engaged his campus staff. He acknowledged change in leadership can be tough, but politics aside, he lauded her “tremendous passion” for children and her dedication in attending school events.

“It’s inspiring to see someone with a grassroots campaign start out as a parent of one of our students, get involved in the political process and do things the right way,” Miller said. “It’s great to see in America there’s still that ability.”

Behind him, the crowd erupted as the Cowboys took the lead on the scoreboard.

Before her moment in the limelight, Shaw was a homemaker. She and her husband, Chris, a construction supervisor, have been married 17 years. They live with their two daughters, 14 and 16, and Shaw’s father in a modest condominium that is scrubbed and tidy and smells like vanilla.

Shaw was born in the Chino Valley to a mother she says struggled with addiction. She describes her early childhood as neglectful and lonely, including stints living in a community shelter and foster care before moving to Chino Hills with her dad. Her mom died a few months before Shaw’s 10th birthday.

Shaw graduated from Ayala High in Chino Valley Unified and did not attend college. Lean and fit, she competed in bodybuilding competitions and started a business as a personal trainer.

Before running for office, Shaw was a regular presence in her daughters’ classrooms, volunteering as a room mother, art instructor, P.E. coach and PTA member, and cheering on from the stands at their soccer games.

She attended Inland Hills Church for over a decade and led Bible study there before moving up the street to join Calvary Chapel, an evangelical megachurch in Chino Hills whose controversial pastor, Jack Hibbs, has made a point of incorporating politics into his sermons, endorsing and opposing candidates and causes from the pulpit.

Shaw said politics were not an interest for her before COVID-19 and the frustrations that mounted as she watched her daughters staring at a computer for distance learning. She connected with a group of parents online who shared her exasperation as the school lockdowns wore on. For a time, she pulled her daughters out of public school and enrolled them at a charter offering in-person lessons about an hour away.

Still, Shaw remained engaged with her online network. As more people joined, they formed Parent Advocacy for Chino Valley USD, whose members regularly attended school board meetings to voice their discontent.

Janette Mora was with them, at first.

Mora knew Shaw through their kids’ elementary school and had been one of her fitness clients. Like many in the nascent parents group, Mora felt desperate for her kids to get back in school. But she said what started as a push to find ways to safely reopen schools took an ugly shift in mission and tone. The forum discussions morphed into anti-mask rants and vaccine conspiracy theories, littered with misinformation.

“It started becoming … this angry mob mentality with, you know, like the angry village folk with the pitchforks coming after one thing and then another thing,” Mora said. “It started like a snowball effect of hate where people were becoming divided, and I just was not really feeling that movement anymore.”

Mora, who is raising a gay son, said things took an especially dark turn when the discussions became “very homophobic, very hateful.” She said Shaw, a leader in the group, did nothing to intervene. Mora decided it was time to cut ties.

“It really hurt me to hear people say those things,” Mora said. “And I felt very disappointed in her that she wasn’t shutting down these things.”

In a text message, Shaw rejected the allegations. “The narratives and lies are sad to say the least,” she said. “Our group never did any of that.”

In early 2022, Shaw said, it dawned on her that she should run for a board seat. She was the perfect person, her parents group reasoned. Shaw was a regular face at the district office every first and third Thursday of the month. Each time, she called out trustees and the superintendent during public comment. In one instance, she prayed at the lectern for three minutes.

After she received her husband’s blessing, she said, she believed she was on a path God had set for her.

Hibbs endorsed Shaw’s run for office, and his church’s political action arm supported her candidacy. Shaw’s critics are quick to cite their association as a red flag.

Hibbs has called “transgenderism” a “fallacy” and “cult” and the LGBTQ+ rights movement a government-controlled “social experiment.” He has said state officials want to “mutilate” and “steal” children from parents. In April, Hibbs issued an “urgent call to action” — asking school boards nationwide to pass parental notification policies and offering template language. Three months later, under Shaw’s guidance, Chino Valley did so.

Opponents say the notification movement is, at its heart, a veiled effort to shame and silence gender-nonconforming students — and that outing young people can pose serious physical and emotional risks to those in abusive family situations. They also say that today’s young people in general are exploring issues of gender and sexuality in different ways than earlier generations, and wonder why right-wing factions find that so threatening.

Darlene Berg is among the parents concerned about where her district is headed.

In early September, a day after the judge issued a temporary restraining order on Chino Valley’s policy, Berg attended a school board meeting and looked on, puzzled, as board member Cruz urged the audience to avoid taking the latest booster vaccine.

Berg, who is lesbian, doesn’t deny Shaw is a well-meaning parent, but thinks Hibbs and other extremists are grooming her for leadership because she is likable and charismatic.

“I definitely think she’s way more composed” than the other board members, Berg said. “And I think that’s why she was picked to take on this role and be somebody that they can guide through this process. … They know that she’s somebody people are going to listen to. She’s got a following right now.”

“I know she cares about young people,” Berg added. “I think that she’s just gotten pulled in real deep on this. … I don’t think she’s the one calling the shots.”

Shaw denies collaborating with Hibbs on parental notification or other policies. While she appreciates his support, she said, they maintain respectful boundaries.

“Do I love my pastor? Absolutely. Do I appreciate his boldness and his courageousness? … Absolutely,” Shaw said. “But I wouldn’t say we go out to coffee and we have conversations. I’ve never sat with him and said, ‘Hey, can we talk about a policy I want to come up with? Or can we talk about this?’ We don’t have that. There’s a separation, and there’s a respect that I’m now an elected official.”

Shaw is adamant she is not motivated by transphobia or a repudiation of gay culture. Nor does she see parental notification and other policies she’s pressing as a means of imposing her religious beliefs on public schools. Her aim, she said, is to restore the natural order, helping parents wrest back from schools and government the authority to guide their children.

“I work amongst many people who don’t believe in the same God that I do,” Shaw said. “Yet we can all agree that the family unit is important and the government has no right over the control of a child, [rather] than, first and foremost, their parents.”

Approached at a board meeting, Chino Valley Supt. Norm Enfield declined to discuss the politics surrounding his district, saying he wanted to avoid alienating either side. Weeks later, in response to requests from The Times for an interview, district spokeswoman Andi Johnston said via email that Enfield’s schedule wouldn’t allow room.

But there is no question Shaw’s leadership has been divisive.

At the September board meeting after the district’s notification policy was put on hold, some parents ardently thanked her for standing firm despite the legal setback. Others lamented the district was waging costly battles on fringe topics while ignoring the basic functions of a school district.

“Twenty-five classrooms without A/C on just Day One of 100-plus-degree weather,” one teacher told the board. “We have so many [vacancies] that we have unqualified temp agency workers and aides in the classroom and substitutes filling in for teacher vacancies. And these [vacancies] aren’t just in the classroom but also with district personnel, which trickles down to affect our day-to-day teaching. What’s happening with the textbook pilot for AP literature? … Do any of these issues come up on your radar?”

Whether facing praise or criticism, Shaw held her gaze steady on each speaker. She drew laughter when she stepped in to lift the microphone near a student’s face after it repeatedly drooped too low. At the meeting’s conclusion, she posed for pictures with audience members.

Later that evening, Orange Unified was set to take up its own version of the parental notification policy. Shaw and her supporters stopped for a quick dinner, then made the drive to Orange County to see another school district follow their lead.