“One of the things that I have found is it’s hard to get attention when you’re doing really good things,” said Kentucky Sen. Shelley Funke Frommeyer (R-Alexandria) at the Cold Spring branch of the Campbell County Public Library on Saturday morning.
“When you do really bad things, it seems like not a problem at all to get attention. There’s a lot of attention to that,” Frommeyer said.
A gaggle of children sat on the floor in front of Frommeyer. Parents from the local area sat in chairs surrounding the kids. Tammy Nolan, chair of the Campbell County Republicans committee of election integrity, signed attendees in near the entrance to the meeting room.
Paperwork packets created by the Kentucky Legislative Research Commission emblazoned with bright colors and pictures — clearly made for a child audience — described the state legislative process and facts about Kentucky lined the edges of the sign-in table.
Meanwhile, two books from conservative Christian publishing house Brave Books sat on display on the table: “As You Grow” by actor Kirk Cameron and “Why America Matters” by former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson. These books were given away by the end of the event.
But just before Frommeyer’s statements, the event organizer stepped up and led everyone in the Pledge of Allegiance, then a prayer and finally a rendition of “God Bless America.” That organizer was Mirna Eads, Campbell County’s chapter of Moms for Liberty chairperson.
Saturday’s event was one of many occurring nationwide called “See You at the Library,” jointly promoted by Brave Books and Kirk Cameron.
Many of these events throughout the country, including the ones in Campbell County, were aided or sponsored by chapters of Moms for Liberty.
The ones in Campbell County were held at three Campbell County Public Library branches, first in Cold Spring, then at the Carico Branch in Fort Thomas and finally at the Newport branch. About 10 to 15 kids and their parents showed up to the first two events.
After the first event in Cold Spring, J.C. Morgan, Campbell County Public Library’s library director, sat outside the meeting room, talking with another staff member.
When asked what he thought about Senate Bill 5, he said that he was against it and legislation like it, saying that it restricted the right of children and families to read freely and widely.
Still, he had no problem with letting Moms for Liberty use library facilities, saying that they met frequently at the library and were always friendly and civil.
“They have freedom of speech like everyone else,” Morgan said.
At first glance, these meetings might seem like run-of-the-mill children’s story hours, but the events were a window into a highly vocal group of socially conservative activists who have influenced local and state politics and, in some ways, reflect broader national trends within the Republican party.
After everyone had finished singing, Frommeyer took a few minutes and discussed some basic civic concepts with the kids: What are the three branches of government? How many counties are in Kentucky? What’s the role of a senator, a governor, a judge? And so on.
Then Frommeyer complimented Eads and what Frommeyer described as Eads’ “instrumental” role in the the passage of Senate Bill 5, which establishes a standardized process whereby parents can challenge the presence of books they view as harmful in public schools.
Eads spoke as a private citizen during the public speaking portion of a committee hearing at this year’s legislative session in Frankfort.
Depending on who you ask, Moms for Liberty is either an organization of concerned citizens standing up for the dignity and rights of parents in the commonwealth or a far-right hate group bent on censoring books that deal with topics that offend their political sensibilities.
The Campbell County Moms for Liberty’s website states its mission is “dedicated to fighting for the survival of America by unifying, educating and empowering parents to defend their parental rights at all levels of government.”
On the other hand, the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit that maps political extremist groups throughout the country, characterizes Moms for Liberty as a “a far-right organization that engages in anti-student inclusion activities and self-identifies as part of the modern parental rights movement. The group grew out of opposition to public health regulations for COVID-19, opposes LGBTQ+ and racially inclusive school curriculum and has advocated books bans.”
The organization has 295 chapters in 45 states, said Eads, although Moms for Liberty’s recent national summit in June put the number of chapters at 285 in 45 states.
Tina Descovisch and Tiffany Justice founded the organization in early 2021 in Florida. Descovich had lost a heavily politicized reelection bid to the Brevard County school board in 2020 amid controversy about mask mandates and proposed increases in unionized teacher pay. She formed the group with Justice shortly thereafter.
“We’re expanding and growing,” Eads said.
Kentucky has chapters in Boone, Campbell and Jefferson Counties. Hardin and Fayette Counties also had chapters, but Eads said their chairs had either stepped down or were no longer active.
Finally, it came time for the story.
Frommeyer read from a copy of “As You Grow,” which was later raffled off to one of the attendees along with Carson’s book. The book describes the growth of a community of anthropomorphic animals who take up residence in a giant tree on Freedom Island. This setting appears frequently in the Brave Books catalog. It follows the community’s founding, development and hardship and uses that as a way to discuss the child readers’ own development, hence the title.
The book concludes with a passage from St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians in the New Testament, which summarized the themes of “As You Grow” and which Frommeyer read aloud: “It’s Galatians 5:22 & 23. Be the fruit of the spirit. But the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self control. Against such things, there is no law.”
“I’m not going to make a law against any of that good stuff when I go to Frankfort,” Frommeyer concluded. “We need more of that.”
The road to Frankfort
“I was raised in the Salvation Army,” Eads said.
Eads’ grandfather worked as a preacher in South America for the Christian charitable organization. Eads’ Bolivian-born mother was an officer in the Salvation Army before immigrating to California, where she met Eads’ father, who was from Newport.
Campbell County’s Moms for Liberty chapter is only about a year old, but Eads said her interest in the politics of school curricula predated the pandemic.
“Back in 2015, I lived in Boone County,” Eads said. “My son was going to one of the middle schools there, and they had changed the curriculum. And I started noticing some un-American things within the curriculum.”
Eads said that her seventh-grade son was part of a program at Camp Ernst Middle School in Burlington called Summit Learning, an online educational platform first developed by California-based Summit Charter Schools and popularized by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.
Eads said she first took issue with the curriculum when she saw an article from her son’s social studies class.
“One of the articles said, ‘Why Muslims hate America,'” Eads said. “And I thought, well, I don’t think Muslims hate America. And I read the article, and it was very anti-American, very propaganda.”
Eads did not have a citation for who wrote the article or where it was published, and a cursory Google search for articles with that wording in their titles yields numerous results from publications all across the political spectrum.
Eads eventually moved her son to Highlands Middle School in Fort Thomas.
“I always kind of stayed involved in the education of my child and kept my eyes… glued on curriculum and books and everything,” Eads said.
In 2020 Eads got involved with the Campbell County Republicans and ran for state representative of District 68 in 2022 but lost to Mike Clines in the primary. She didn’t get involved with Moms for Liberty until after the election, founding the Campbell County chapter in August of last year.
Despite the electoral defeat, she remained involved with the Campbell County Republicans, including through the year’s bitter factional infighting.
Eads said the Moms for Liberty chapter has 13 paying and voting members and 23 non-voting members. As many as 40 people attend each meeting, she said, and the group’s private Facebook page has about 200 members.
Early this year, Campbell County Moms for Liberty successfully convinced Campbell County Schools to remove three books from their library shelves: “Lucky” by Alice Sebold, “Tricks” by Ellen Hopkins and “Out of Darkness” by Ashley Hope Perez.
Campbell County Schools did not respond to a request for comment.
Eads has also spoken at school board meetings for Fort Thomas Independent and Newport Independent school districts to curtail what she sees as the spread of literature that’s harmful to children.
Eads was a frequent sight at public committee hearings in Frankfort during this year’s legislative session, often toting a metal ringed binder filled with passages from books found on school shelves throughout the state she believed were inappropriate for children, or at the very least deserved some warning informing parents of what their kids were about to read.
The passages (and images in the case of graphic novels) in question had been copied onto the binder’s pages and assigned a numerical content rating. They frequently dealt with imagery of sex or violence, albeit removed from their narrative contexts. Some of them also dealt explicitly with the politics of race and gender, at times expressing points of view that deviated from conventional conceptions of the subjects.
In the packet that Eads gave to LINK nky, many of the books were flagged as appearing in Iowa schools, not Kentucky schools, but Eads said many of the same books appeared in Kentucky schools, according to a variety of web services she’d used to check for the appearance of different books on school shelves.
A handful of lawmakers found these images compelling enough to sponsor legislation establishing a state-wide process for parents to challenge books on school library shelves in the form of Senate Bill 5, sponsored by Jason Howell (R-District 1), Gary Boswell (R-District 8), Donald Douglas (R-District 22), Max Wise (R-District 16) and Frommeyer.
Many districts had established complaint processes before the passage of the bill, but the new legislation standardizes things across the state.
Under Senate Bill 5, if a parent wants to challenge a book, they must first make a complaint to the school’s principal, who has seven days to investigate the book and make a ruling on whether the book should stay on the shelf, have its access restricted in some way or removed entirely. The principal must then inform the parent of the school’s ruling within ten days of receiving the complaint.
If the parent disagrees with a principal’s decision, they can appeal to the district’s board of education, which has 30 days to review the book and allow the parent to make public statements at open meetings. Members then vote on what to do with the book, which serves as the final decision for the district.
Critics of this law have characterized it as a form of censorship, but proponents say it’s necessary to prevent the influx of pornography and other graphic material into public schools.
“The legislation they put together, it’s important that we make sure our children have good books in the library,” said Alexandria City Council Member Robert Strong, who attended the event in Cold Spring, “and somebody policing our libraries, not just our public libraries but our school libraries as well.”
A national phenomenon
The events in Campbell County on Saturday were calm, civil, and uneventful. But this was not the case with another instance of “See you at the Library,” which occurred in Madison, Ala.
The local Moms for Liberty chapter in Madison had hoped to host their event at the Hunstville-Madison County Public Library, but earlier in the week library staff learned that over 300 people were planning on attending. Kirk Cameron was also slated to make an appearance.
The city canceled the event saying, “City resources cannot support an event of this size on such short notice. Alternative accommodations have been recommended to the organization to ensure a safe and well-attended event.”
Jeremy Dys, a lawyer from the First Liberty Institute, representing both Moms for Liberty and Brave Books, then sent a letter to the library system, alleging they had unfairly censored the event.
Eventually, the city reversed its decision with the conditions that the event cap its attendance number to 225 and that public officials be allowed to monitor the event to help manage the crowds. Hundreds of people, including a group of protestors, eventually turned out to the event.
Nothing so dramatic happened in Northern Kentucky.
When LINK nky spoke with Eads, she shared her perspective on Senate Bill 5 and politics generally, and she responded to some common criticisms of her work.
She elaborated on the aspects of modern public schools she found problematic, specifically those changes relating to how subjects of racism and gender identity are taught and interventions related to student mental health.
“With [Critical Race Theory, Social-Emotional Learning and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion], treating your neighbor justly with equality, all that’s good,” Eads said. “It’s good talk, but–and I’m not talking necessarily Fort Thomas schools–but in general, a lot of schools what they’re doing is they’re bringing back racism. They’re telling you, you know, how you look at your neighbor? Is it because you have white privilege, or you’re the oppressor? We don’t need that. They’re trying to divide us more and more. Just let kids be kids.”
Here Eads is referring to the way that the subjects of American chattel slavery, the Jim Crow South, gay and queer rights movements and other political conflicts throughout American history are taught in schools, often derided by critics as “wokeness,” although Eads didn’t use that term. Eads, like many socially conservative critics, views the tone and content of these sorts of diversity and equity initiatives as excessively confrontational.
On the other hand, social-emotional learning refers to educational methods that focus on developing students’ understanding of their emotions and social interactions rather than discrete skills like reading and mathematics.
In Eads’ view, these interventions are all ways of smuggling political agendas into public schools.
“They’re focusing more on this gender ideology,” Eads said, “and there’s a lot of more of the sex talk going on in schools. They really want to focus on mental health. The schools are there to educate; they are not medical facilities, and they don’t need to be going outside of their lane, if you will.”
“Parents have to be involved in the schools and know what the kids are being taught,” Eads said, adding that parents should have free access to teacher lesson plans and other materials.
“I’m not saying that every teacher is bad, and not every teacher is out there to indoctrinate kids,” Eads said. “We have some rogue teachers, and you can just go on Tik Tok. Teachers have gone on Tik Tok, you know, the crazy left have said, yeah, I’ve got your children in my classroom, and this is how we’re going to do things.”
Overall, Eads thinks that schools should butt out of mental health altogether. This would entail the removal of school psychologists and other mental health professionals from schools.
“School counselors are being trained to be trauma-informed counselors… And that’s all fine and dandy, but it’s kind of the back door” to state-led interventions from school staff that could lead to the separation of children from their families, Eads argued.
When asked what the alternative to mental health infrastructure in schools should be, Eads said, “It’s up to the parents to make those medical choices, mental health choices for their students. Why are we spending all these extra resources analyzing our students for mental health issues or depression or suicide or all this? If we just focus on reading, writing, arithmetic, social studies, history, financial skills, trade options, you know? So that when they graduate high school, they have something to look forward to.”
When asked what school staff and mental professionals had to gain from separating families, or rather, what’s the point of these alleged separations, Eads said that it was ideologically driven.
“With socialism and Marxism, the goal is that the government raises the children, not the parents. They’re trying to split up the home,” Eads said. “They’re trying to take more off the parents plate and say, oh, you need to worry about working; you need to worry about making money.”
As to the question of pornography in schools, one criticism of Senate Bill 5 that arises is that if there is any vector by which pornographic and violent material enters schools, it’s not library shelves but internet-based media like smartphones and computers, which many students have easy access to. Thus, why not spend more time trying to curtail access to smartphones rather than books?
“Technology is a big, big thing,” Eads said. “But every school has a library. Every kid has access to that library.”
She even admitted that her kids had expressed skepticism about her legislative efforts, claiming that kids didn’t spend much time in the library.
“I said, but if you heard from a friend, this book was in the library, would you go with your friends to go try to find that book?” Eads asked rhetorically. “Probably. Okay, well, let’s knock that piece out.”
Finally, the question arose that if Eads and others in groups like Moms for Liberty were critical of what they viewed as governmental overreach, why not leave policies around the contents of school libraries and curricula up to the individual districts, allowing them to maintain local control, rather than getting the state involved?
“It wasn’t getting taken care of properly,” Eads said, speaking of her own experience with Campbell County Schools, which she characterized as onerous and inefficient.
“That’s why it took SB 5 to kind of standardize that across the state so that any parent can go and challenge a book,” Eads said, “and it gave guidelines to the schools.”
Freedom to speak, freedom to read
Back at the library, one attendee, who asked not to be named, said she was glad that events like “See You at the Library” were happening.
“It’s great to be around like-minded people,” she said, adding that her children were home-schooled and that she didn’t have any comments on Senate Bill 5 itself.