REDLANDS, California—When Amber Easley decided to attend her first school board meeting, she didn’t expect to be followed home. She was even more shocked months later, when she saw her face plastered on stickers around her hometown of Redlands, California.
One Photoshopped image depicted Easley with a Hitler mustache. Another showed her flashing a white power hand sign and wearing a sweater reading, “Save a horse, ride a Proud Boy”—a reference to the violent, neo-fascist organization whose members have been convicted of helping orchestrate the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.
Easley has accepted this simmering menace as a fact of life. It’s the price she pays for her commitment to “keeping fash off our board.”
In the “Jewel of the Inland Empire,” famous for its vast orange groves and charming 19th-century homes, a network of alt-right hate groups, right-wing Christians, and conspiracy theorists have launched a crusade to reshape public schools in their own image. They have contested school board seats, called for book bans, denied the existence of LGBTQ children, and used scripture as a justification.
In response, Easley and four other parents founded Safe Redlands Schools. They’re part community organizers, part activists, and part extremism watchdogs—all conducted on a shoestring budget between playdates, little league games, and driving lessons.
“The objective is [to] … keep these people scared, keep them away from our city, and let them know that they’re not going to be able to just come in and run all over us,” said Stephanie Palaad, a co-founder of SRS. “We’re going to body block them, especially from our vulnerable youth.”
Last fall, SRS helped defeat a campaign to unseat a Redlands school board incumbent by a far-right candidate named Erin Stepien, who ran on a platform of opposing critical race theory and “gender ideology,” forbidding mask and vaccine mandates, and banning books deemed “pornographic” from school libraries.
They have led a letter-writing campaign to support a high-school teacher who was accused of “grooming” for advising an LGBTQ student group, organized a corps of yellow-vested chaperones to support parents at school board meetings, and done extensive research to identify the outside extremists who increasingly view their city as a target.
Yet they see their greatest achievement as “creating community within our community.”
“We managed to anticipate the extremism in our community and get ahead of it by educating our neighbors and asking them to push back,” said SRS co-founder Erin Mason. “We have tapped into our actual community and created a real cool network of people who are actual stakeholders in this community and will show up for it.”
The stakes are clear. In nearby Chino Hills, megachurch pastor Jack Hibbs, who recently called the “transgender agenda” a “plan of none other than Satan himself,” used his pulpit to help elect a far-right majority to his local school board. Further south in Temecula, hundreds of students walked out of class after a newly empowered right-wing Christian majority on the school board voted to ban critical race theory.
These clashes in the purple pockets of deep-blue Southern California mirror conflicts playing out across the country. Culture war issues have come to dominate national politics, with the 2024 Republican primary increasingly becoming a competition to voice the most strident opposition to “woke” ideology.
Many red states have followed suit, moving to pass laws prohibiting gender-affirming care for minors, outlawing critical race theory, and banning discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools.
A raft of well-funded, right-wing activist groups posing as coalitions of concerned parents and citizens have increasingly brought these fights to the hyperlocal level, with school boards especially becoming targets.
Yet unlike many of the school districts under attack across the country, Redlands has thus far managed to buck the rightward trend. In the process, it has provided a possible blueprint for fighting back.
An unlikely alliance
SRS is an unusual group, who would likely never have met, but for their shared concern for the safety of their children.
Easley, a Marxist graphic designer, focuses on the group’s social media presence.
Paalad, who runs a parent mental health support group, leverages her reputation to build support in the community.
Mason and Trisha Keeling are stay-at-home moms, who monitor extremists on social media, coordinate email blasts to their mailing list of over 700, and set event dates.
Felipe Albertao, a software engineer from Brazil and co-leader of a regional voter outreach initiative called IE Votes, uses data to plan canvassing campaigns and digital outreach.
As SRS has stepped up its activism, it has increasingly aroused the ire of local extremist groups.
On freeway overpasses and roadside billboards around the city, huge banners have appeared bearing the Proud Boys’ signature laurel wreath logo and carrying messages like “SRS PROMOTES GROOMING” and “PROTECT YOUR KIDS FROM TRANSGENDER ILLNESS & VIOLENCE.”
SRS organizers have been publicly singled out by adversaries at school board meetings. Easley once returned from a weekend trip after leaving her child, who is transgender, with a friend to find the flier depicting her as Hitler glued to her front door.
Members of the Proud Boys regularly appear at demonstrations and school board meetings alongside activists from a range of other fringe right-wing groups. Frequent guests include members of Gays Against Groomers, a far-right gay organization founded by former Trump communications officials, and Lexit, a conservative Latino group that has drawn national media attention for protesting outside a San Diego-area YMCA that allowed a transgender woman to shower in a women’s locker room.
Social media posts from national organizations including Gays Against Groomers and Turning Point USA are also reposted on local accounts including the Redlands Tea Party Patriots and the Inland Empire Liberty Coalition, a conservative advocacy group whose members include Redlands-based Christian content creator Jared Gustafson.
Gays Against Groomers and Lexit did not respond to a request for comment.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, a spokesperson for the Inland Empire Liberty Coalition said the organization supports the LGBTQ community and claimed that SRS does not represent Redlands parents.
“They’re a despicable organization that pretends like they care for children, but really, they only care about their own ideological perspective,” said the spokesperson.
The spokesperson accused SRS of “terroriz[ing] parents that disagree with them,” claiming that SRS had attempted to get IELC members fired from their jobs and made lists of businesses not to support because they are conservative.
“They continually make this personal. They publicly shame people who they don’t like,” said the spokesperson. “They publicly lie about our coalition in public speeches.”
SRS organizers confirmed that they attempted to get IELC members fired, citing an uncorroborated allegation posted online by a former church member that Gustafson, who is also a social worker, and his brother, subjected members of a church group he led to abuse and inappropriate sexual behavior in the early 2010s.
“We feel that people who have a history of grooming and being harmful to vulnerable people should not have access to them through their professional avenues,” Easley said, adding that she had personally compiled the list of businesses to boycott during the pandemic due to their lack of compliance with COVID-19 protocols.
Jared Gustafson has denied the abuse allegations, calling them “factually untrue." He has not been criminally charged or accused in court.
SRS organizers see the fight over the Redlands school board as much bigger than these personal feuds. They regard it as part of an existential battle over the future of public education.
“This is something that’s a huge… concerted effort by the right to destabilize public schools,” Palaad said. “It's happening all over the country.”
Local radiologist Dale Broome, a Redlands Tea Party Patriots member who frequently appears at school board alongside other right-wing figures, is one of the largest donors in California to so-called “school choice” campaigns, which promote the diversion of public funds to private schools.
Broome donated $400,000 to the Californians for School Choice campaign, almost single-handedly funding the failed push to put a measure on the ballot to provide parents with $15,000 per year should they choose to opt out of public schools.
Broome has called the California public school curriculum “morally objectionable and un-American,” citing “comprehensive sex education, global warming, social justice, anti-Americanism, atheism, critical race theory, socialism, communism, gender fluidity, globalism, religious pluralism and evolution.”
The moment something shifted
Education wasn’t always a battleground in Redlands.
Mason, who grew up in what is now a town of 70,000, remembers a childhood full of market nights on historic State Street and orange trees stretching out in all directions.
“It was like any other, I think, ’80s town… Everybody out in the streets, back by the time the sun was going down,” Mason said. “There’s a reason people bring their families here.”
Mason was raised in a conservative family, in an era when she says Redlands was dominated by a “country club vibe.”
She didn’t begin questioning her beliefs until she had kids in the mid-2010s—the same time she saw the “old-school Republicans” being replaced by a newer generation who didn’t mind being “messy.”
First it was just a few Tea Party Patriots staking out the corner of Redlands Boulevard and Orange Avenue, then the Trump supporters in her parent Facebook groups. But Mason says the “explosion” came during the pandemic.
As the spread of COVID-19 prompted mask mandates and school closings, people from outside Redlands began attending school board meetings as representatives of an anti-mask group called Let Them Breathe, which gained national attention for unsuccessfully suing the state of California over its mask policies.
“This was a group of… probably like 60 or 70 parents that would go from district to district to school board meetings, all yelling about the same thing—being against masks,” Paalad said.
When one attendee said “Heil Hitler” after being told to abide by school board protocols, it was clear that something significant had shifted.
The parents who would become SRS had met in a local Facebook group during the pandemic, but they began to step up their activism and use social media to identify the outsiders bringing chaos to their school board meetings.
“You literally have to get together as if you’re just a bunch of your girls in the living room and you’re trying to figure out who’s fucking who,” Easley said. “Grab screenshots, create folders, give names, Google spreadsheet, and sure enough, they’ll start tying together.”
With the help of a Los Angeles-based independent journalist who tracks far-right activists, SRS figured out that multiple people who had attended their school board meetings were also at the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, including Josh Fulfer, who was arrested in 2021 on gun charges.
They say they spotted members of the Proud Boys making appearances alongside former Gays Against Groomers executive director Frank Rodriguez and Lexit event coordinator Sylvia Araujo. They saved a post from the Inland Empire Liberty Coalition endorsing a banner featuring Proud Boy iconography that read “SAFE REDLANDS SCHOOLS HURTS YOUR CHILDREN.”
In a statement to The Daily Beast, a spokesperson for the Inland Empire Liberty Coalition denied any relationship between the two organizations and condemned the Capitol riot.
“We don’t know proud boy’s [sic]. We don’t partner with them knowingly. We don’t attend their meetings. They don’t attend ours,” the spokesperson said.
Rodriguez and Araujo did not respond to requests for comment.
Yet as vaccines were rolled out, shutdowns were lifted, and mask mandates lapsed, the constellation of right-wing agitators didn’t seem to be going anywhere.
They endorsed Stepien’s right-wing push to unseat Redlands school board incumbent Patty Holohan, whose campaign had itself turned increasingly ugly. In the run-up to the November 2022 election, one of Holohan’s campaign workers was arrested after she was caught stealing Stepien’s campaign signs, which she defaced with a Hitler mustache and the phrase, “ERIN STEPIEN HATES QUEER KIDS.”
Yet by the time Stepien had lost, a new issue already seemed to be in the spotlight: LGBTQ education.
Nearly every school board meeting seemed to feature a new topic of contention. One week it was a high school allegedly providing students with extra credit to attend a Latino heritage festival where a man in drag was performing as the singer Selena. Another week it was the high school’s student-led LGBTQ club using their adviser’s classroom to host a chest-binding class during lunch.
Rancorous debate inevitably featured accusations of “grooming” directed at supporters of the LGBTQ students. SRS organizers were cursed out, followed, and threatened on banners and stickers posted around Redlands.
Things were further complicated in April when CBS News released a special report that chronicled a shocking but unrelated history of sexual abuse in Redlands schools. The 25 teachers mentioned in the report were overwhelmingly heterosexual men, but the school district’s failure to take appropriate action reflected poorly on its ability to keep children safe.
School board meetings often seemed to be on the verge of turning violent. Both sides accused each other of physical attacks using protest signs.
Fearing for the safety of local parents, SRS began calling on its yellow-vested chaperones.
Jack MacPhee, a former schoolteacher who is transgender, said he feels that working as a chaperone means that “anybody who feels unsafe feels that they can come to us, and they can get to a car or sit in a meeting, or if they feel uncomfortable with who they are for a moment we can sit with them.”
In recent months, parents supporting the LGBTQ community have begun showing up to school board and city council meetings in greater and greater numbers. Members of powerful local labor groups including the Teachers Union and the Teamsters Union have also expressed their support.
“If the LGBT community says we want a voice in our community, why would we stand against that?” said Rich Smith, a business representative for the Teamsters Local 1932, which represents the Inland Empire. Smith added that he doesn’t “like people trying to influence debates for purely political reasons.”
Despite their growing base of support, SRS organizers still say it’s difficult to plan for the future when they are constantly in reaction mode.
Nonetheless, they have a few longer-term projects in the works—a database of known extremists, a map of Proud Boys “banner drop” locations, and a growing group chat to connect with parents attempting similar organizing campaigns in districts across Southern California.
“This is not a sprint. This is a marathon, and [those on the far-right] are in it for the marathon,” Mason, one of the SRS co-founders, said. “We don’t in any way feel like we’re safe yet, because we know that they’re relentless.”