Outside the California State Capitol last month, a fitness trainer turned school board president fired up the crowd at a parental rights rally, telling them they were all fighters in “a spiritual battle” for their kids and must answer the call from God.
Sonja Shaw, who was elected to the Chino Valley Unified School District board of education last November with an assist from a local megachurch and its Christian nationalist pastor, didn’t equivocate in naming the enemy: state Democratic officials who are challenging her right-leaning policies—and drafting laws that hinder books bans and protect teachers from harassment.
“Today we stand here and declare in his almighty name that it’s only a matter of time before we take your seats and we be a God-fearing example to the nation, how God is using California to lead the way,” Shaw crowed, adding, “We already know who has won this battle. You will be removed in Jesus’s name! You, Satan, are losing.”
Now Shaw is in the national spotlight in wake of her Chino school board passing codes that ban pride flags in classrooms and force educators to inform parents if their children identify as transgender—the first such policy to be passed in the state.
This summer, Shaw’s school board meetings, about 35 miles east of Los Angeles, became chaotic spectacles, ones that attracted the Proud Boys and other right-wing extremists and pitted them against students and parents protesting what they’re calling anti-LGBTQ practices that endanger children. When California superintendent of schools Tony Thurmond appeared at the July meeting in opposition, Shaw unceremoniously silenced him.
Weeks after state Attorney General Rob Bonta announced a civil rights probe into Shaw’s “gender disclosure” policy, his office sued the school board. Bonta said the policy violates the California constitution and state law, and would cause LGBTQ+ students, “mental, emotional, psychological and potential physical harm,” according to a press release.
Other right-leaning school boards across the state have followed Chino Valley Unified’s lead. Shortly before filing suit against the Chino board, Bonta issued statements denouncing the Anderson Union High School District, Temecula Valley Unified and Murrieta Valley Unified school boards’ decisions to pursue “copycat” anti-trans policies.
Sonja Shaw listens to speakers in front of the state Capitol on bills related to LGBTQ school curriculum in Sacramento.
Wally Skalij/Los Angles Times
“These students are currently under threat of being outed to their parents against their will, and many fear that the District’s policy will force them to make a choice: either ‘walk back’ their constitutionally and statutorily protected rights to gender identity and gender expression, or face the risk of emotional, physical, and psychological harm,” Bonta said.
To concerned observers in Chino, Shaw’s tack is not unlike what’s happening at school boards across the country, with brawls over curriculum, social emotional learning, and the banning of books that focus on race and LGBTQ issues. Extremist groups like Moms for Liberty have spawned a mainstream narrative that public schools are “indoctrinating” children with “woke” ideology and into believing they’re a different gender.
But in Chino Valley, the school board’s new direction appears to be spurred on by a man behind the curtain: Shaw’s megachurch pastor Jack Hibbs.
Indeed, three of the board’s five members belong to his church, Calvary Chapel Chino Hills.
At the Sacramento rally, Hibbs boasted of his congregation’s work in electing Shaw. Calling her a “true modern-day Deborah,” Hibbs said the soccer mom “heeded the call to run for the school board” and that “when churches get involved and get informed, people vote.”
God, Hibbs said, installed Shaw into her position.
“Get on your knees every night,” Shaw told the crowd. “All day I talk to him. People probably think I’m crazy, but I’m really just talking to God all day.” After reciting a Bible verse, she added, “I have looked demons straight in the eye and with God’s authority rebuked them back to hell where they belong.
“You can do that too, trust me.”
Residents have long raised alarms about the school board’s religious bent. And Pastor Hibbs and members of his megachurch congregation appear to be more involved than ever in Chino’s public schools.
Last week, in an interview with right-wing provocateur Charlie Kirk, Hibbs said that he brought the policy language to the school board after Republican state Assemblyman Bill Essayli’s “parental notification” legislation died without a hearing.
“He came back thinking he was defeated,” Hibbs said. “What we did is that we read his bill and we took the verbiage from that bill and then introduced it to our unified school district school board and they voted and adopted the verbiage.
“Guess what happened?” Hibbs continued. “We found out something, Charlie, that the most powerful politics is local…”
Hibbs then turned to Bonta’s lawsuit against the board, saying, “We’re going to take that on, we’re going to make sure that this goes to the U.S. Supreme Court.”
The pastor, who hasn’t returned messages left by The Daily Beast, wasn’t shy about his fight on the school board’s behalf.
Before he signed off, Hibbs told Kirk that children are “groomed” into trans ideology in the classroom and that schools want to “castrate your children” and “mutilate them.”
Ahead of the parental notification vote in July, Hibbs also urged people to flock to the fiery board meeting. “We’re asking people to show up by the thousands,” he said in a video announcement on the church’s Facebook page. “Please make it a priority.”
A supporter of Chino Valley school board’s policy to require schools to ‘out’ students to parents if they ask to be identified by a gender not listed on their birth certificate.
David McNew/Getty Images
Meanwhile, Calvary Chapel has boasted on social media of collecting tens of thousands of ballots for state and local candidates endorsed by Hibbs. The church’s ballot collection, a practice it’s engaged in for years, is conducted with help from Hibbs’ political organization Real Impact.
A teacher in another district—who alleges she was fired for refusing to follow her school’s gender identity protocols—heeded Hibbs’ call. “I could no longer be both a Christian and a public school teacher,” she said at the board meeting. “Then I remembered what Pastor Jack Hibbs taught me, that the word of God says… that being a coward is a sin.”
Still, Shaw claims that neither she nor the school board follow Hibbs’ orders. “Absolutely not. No one has a direct line to Pastor Jack Hibbs. Pastor Jack has never said, ‘Hey, guys, I want you to bring this policy forward.’ Never ever did he do any of that,” she told The Daily Beast. She added, however, that she couldn’t speak on Hibbs’ involvement with the board of education prior to her election.
The mother of two daughters—a freshman and junior in high school—Shaw was a Bible study leader at another church before joining Hibbs’ Calvary Chapel Chino Hills about two years ago.
Last September, Shaw told the San Bernardino Sun that she wasn’t running for election on the behalf of the 10,000-member Calvary Chapel. “They keep calling me ‘the church’s choice.’ I’ve never met Pastor Jack (Hibbs). I’ve never been brought up on stage,” she said.
One month later, however, Hibbs introduced her at the pulpit, telling his Sunday service that “she’s truly going up against the machine” before leading a prayer for her victory. Shaw bowed her head as Hibbs lifted a hand in the air and declared, “She has decided, Lord, to take on the woke-ism that is attacking our children.”
“I think Chino Valley is a cautionary tale.”
Hibbs has emboldened supporters to fight progressive education bills and prop up Christian candidates. In his sermons, he has tearfully prayed on stage for Donald Trump to win the 2020 election, said COVID-19 vaccines would lead people into accepting “the mark of the beast,” and called “transgenderism” a “sexually perverted cult” and “an anti-God, anti-Christ plan of none other than Satan himself.”
On education, he’s claimed that he and his acolytes are “trying to rescue kids from a system that is sexualizing them,” that kids “come out of school questioning their gender but they don’t even know how to do simple math” and “are being raped by the public school system.”
Hibbs has also taken aim at California’s abortion protections, describing them as “Infanticidal Death Policies,” in a document circulated to his congregation in October 2022, just before Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom’s re-election.
“If God does not intervene in this upcoming election through His people, which has always been his MO, and, if Newsom has his way, then this will certainly be proof that judgment has begun in California if not the United States,” the document reads. It ends by encouraging followers to return their ballots to the church.
“We should be able to stand against the school board,” Hibbs said in May. “We should be able to stand against some teacher that is molesting your child—if not physically, in their minds.”
In July, Hibbs delivered a skewed history lesson claiming that some founding fathers “inherited” slaves but actually cared for them. “Before you call them rich white guys who were slave owners,” Hibbs preached, “you need to finish the sentence: They were rich white guys who were slave owners who clothed, fed, and in many cases took very good care of their slaves while at the same time juggling two worlds…”
The megachurch has also tried to meddle in Chino Valley public school classes and teachings. Calvary Chapel members once funded textbooks for an elective course in two public high schools on the Bible as history and literature and tried to alter rules for sex education curriculum.
The church also runs a Christian “Released Time” program, where public school students can duck out of class for weekly one-hour Bible lessons held in buses outfitted with tables and chairs. This program had a table at the district’s back-to-school night, and a volunteer in a Calvary Chapel Chino Hills T-shirt handed out candy and Bible coloring books.
Chino Valley Unified School District Superintendent Dr. Norm Enfield, left, and President Sonja Shaw, right, listen to a speaker during a board meeting ahead of the board’s vote to requiring schools to notify parents if their child changes their pronouns.
Will Lester/MediaNews Group/Inland Valley Daily Bulletin via Getty Images
“This is a national movement and it’s intentional,” former school board president Christina Gagnier told The Daily Beast. “I think Chino Valley is a cautionary tale.”
District parent Glory Ciccarelli condemned Hibbs’ words on slavery at the August board meeting, urging Black parents to leave his church and “wake up and realize that what our ancestors went through is slowly getting phased out of the curriculum to the point where our kids will eventually be taught that literal slaveholders were nice guys…”
Ciccarelli told The Daily Beast that her biggest issue with Chino Valley leadership is “the apathy they have for the Black kids in the district,” and that the board needs professional development training relating to race and culture and diversity in hiring.
But she believes that Hibbs’ influence over certain board members could derail any progress in the district. In addition to Shaw, two other school board members—James Na and Andrew Cruz—are also members of Calvary Chapel.
“Cruz and Na are quite literally acolytes of Jack Hibbs at this point,” Ciccarelli said. “In my opinion, everything they say and believe as it relates to the school board is basically something they have heard from him.”
Hibbs, she added, “reminds me of Jim Jones with the way he is so easily able to control so many people at the same time.”
At the July board meeting that attracted far-right extremists like the Proud Boys, some local parents pushed back against the church’s connections to the school board.
“Madam President, board, cabinet, and staff,” quipped one father of a queer child, “I didn’t know I came to church tonight. I thought it was a board meeting.”
So many citizens had signed up to speak, waiting in a line outside in 100-degree weather, that the board cut the public comment period from three minutes to one minute per person.
Lisa Greathouse, a local mom and former school board candidate, defended teachers against claims they were “indoctrinating” and “grooming” kids. “Make no mistake,” Greathouse told the auditorium, “what this board is pushing through now is just the tip of the iceberg. They are taking their cue from their megachurch…”
Outbursts from hecklers interrupted the proceeding, which had a heavy police and security presence. Speakers from out of town and from Calvary Chapel preached about God and the Devil, facing off with parents and students who warned Shaw and her board they would have blood on their hands should the “outing” policy pass.
One moment in particular was so explosive it made headlines: Shaw excoriated Tony Thurmond, California’s state superintendent of schools, who’d asked her to reconsider the policy about notifying parents if their children identified as trans. He said it might run afoul of student privacy laws and jeopardize kids who “may not be in homes where they can be safe.”
“It seriously feels like I’m in some sort of weird dystopia.”
Thurmond wasn’t finished with his remarks, but Shaw cut him off for time like she did anyone else. “Tony Thurmond,” she seethed, “I appreciate you being here, tremendously. But here’s the problem: We’re here because of people like you. You’re in Sacramento proposing things that pervert children!”
After Thurmond tried to continue, Shaw yelled into her mic that she wouldn’t let him “blackmail” or “bully” her district. Video of the scene showed Thurmond exchanging words with a group of cops before walking away.
In a statement, Thurmond told The Daily Beast that a group of concerned students contacted him about Shaw’s proposal, and he rearranged his schedule to be there. “Let’s be clear about these policies—a small group of anti-LGBTQ+ politicians like Ms. Shaw believe they have the right to dictate when and how students and their families talk about their sexual orientation or gender identity,” Thurmond said. “They are trying to turn our public school educators—who are already overworked and underpaid—into the gender police.”
“Choosing when to come out and to whom is a deeply personal decision that LGBTQ+ young people have the right to make for themselves.”
Ashlee Peters, the parent of a child in the district, watched the scene unfold. “As an educator and as a mom, you just sit there and go, ‘I can’t believe this is happening in my community,’” said Peters, who has been a public school teacher for 22 years.
Peters was also in line when far-right activist Bryce Henson, who also goes by Ben Richards, walked around trying to bait people into reacting on camera. “He would come up to you and be like, ‘I just want to talk to you, why can’t we just have a conversation about this?’” It was a sneak preview of the testimony to come.
Inside, people proselytized and spewed hatred, calling LGBTQ people “terrorists” and warning “demons are after our children.” Richards called transgender, Black Lives Matter and Juneteenth flags flying outside his San Diego school district a symbol of “systemic radical leftist indoctrination.” One mother ended her speech with, “As Jason Aldean would say, ‘Well, try that in a small town.’”
Chino Valley School board president Sonja Shaw told the crowd in Sacramento, “We already know who has won this battle. You will be removed in Jesus’s name! You, Satan, are losing.”
Wally Skalij/Los Angles Times
When it was her turn, Peters warned that the “outing” policy would “create a hostile environment” for LGBTQIA+ students and that the board’s “reckless pursuit of personal agendas” could bring about “expensive lawsuits.”
The atmosphere was so tense that security escorted a person out who put hands on someone else, Peters said. “It seriously feels like I’m in some sort of weird dystopia,” Peters told The Daily Beast. “I don’t know how this happened because it does not feel real.”
Peters believes that what’s unfolding in Chino Valley Unified is a wake-up call to monitor school board elections. “I just didn’t think it was going to happen in my community because I live in California,” she said. “I feel relatively safe living in a blue state—that religion wasn’t going to suddenly take over my public school system, and it has.”
Even though the involvement of Hibbs and his megachuch in local public schools has been center stage in Chino Valley this year, it’s a battle that’s been brewing for at least a decade. Back in 2014, the Freedom from Religion Foundation filed a lawsuit on behalf of parents in Chino Valley over prayers and Bible readings at school board meetings, arguing these practices “constituted an establishment of religion in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments.”
The prayers and Bible verses were being led by Calvary Chapel members James Na and Andrew Cruz, who were elected to the school board in 2008 and 2012 respectively.
According to the prayer lawsuit, Na once told spectators of a school board meeting that their “lives begin in the hospital and end in the church, and urged everyone who does not know Jesus Christ to go and find Him.” In 2013, Na sent out a letter to school district “family member[s]” that referred to Hibbs with an excerpt from “Pastor Jack’s Christmas story.”
“The community is going to rise and create a war chest to help you,” Hibbs told the board in 2016 in the midst of the legal battle, though a crowdfunding drive affiliated with the church apparently never delivered. A school board spokesperson previously said that funding was intended to bring the case to the Supreme Court.
“The devil always loses.”
A federal judge ultimately ruled in the parents’ favor, and the board lost its Ninth Circuit appeal, leaving the district with $282,000 in legal bills.
This apparently hasn’t stopped Cruz’s Christian commentary. In April, he went on a rant wherein he said that if he were governor, he’d mandate citizens be trained in firearms and that, “I do love one man, I really love this man, and that is Jesus Christ. It’s in my head.”
Since his election, Cruz has especially ignited parents’ ire and weathered calls to resign as a result of his offensive remarks and chemtrail conspiracy theories. In 2015, Cruz said mothers who don’t vaccinate their kids are wrongfully vilified while “illegal aliens” bring infectious disease to America. In 2018, Cruz infamously said that “it wasn’t Hitler that was bad, it was the people that follow the laws and the agenda” while discussing “parents rights.”
That year, Na and Cruz (and Hibbs) proposed that parents have the ability to opt kids out of sex-ed discussions on gender identity, sexual orientation, and discrimination—and for schools to notify parents when a transgender student uses a locker room or shower. Those measures failed.
Na is also not without controversy. Aside from his religious musings at the board, he’s also been accused of trying to recruit at least one student to Calvary Chapel.
At a June board meeting, a statement was read on behalf of Esther Kim, who was the panel’s student representative in the 2021-2022 school year. “In sophomore year, I met Mr. Na through a personal phone call where his school board role and my school were acknowledged,” Kim said. “During an unrelated conversation, he attempted to persuade me to go to his church.”
Chino Valley Unified School District President Sonja Shaw receives a high five from clerk Andrew Cruz, not pictured, as board member James Na, right, looks on during a board meeting at Don Lugo High School in Chino on Thursday night July 20, 2023.
MediaNews Group/Inland Valley Daily Bulletin via Getty Images
In November 2021, Kim mobilized classmates to oppose Cruz and Na’s attempt to ban trans students from using the bathrooms of their identified gender. Cruz additionally proposed requiring trans students to “have psychological counseling for a minimum of 6 months to ensure” they’re trans and a doctor’s letter showing the student is receiving hormonal therapy.
Kim remembers that Na had compared the fight to protect transgender people to choosing between saving a man and an “endangered species.” “The students came out feeling attacked, downcast,” Kim told The Daily Beast. “They lost hope in their school board.”
In May of last year, Kim stood up to Na’s proposed resolution against Assembly Bill 2223, which shields women who have lost or ended pregnancies from prosecution. Calvary Chapel members, including a prayer-reciting Shaw, showed up to the meeting after Hibbs encouraged “a thousand or two” people to support Na’s proposal. Na rationalized this non-education motion, telling the room that “the devil always loses” and abortion would lead to lower enrollment and thus a loss of funding. For his part, Cruz warned of a future where women are paid to have babies, who would be “ripped up” for their organs.
When it was her turn to speak, Kim said Na’s abortion proposal had no place at a school board. “My peers and I have time to time been disappointed by the actions of some of our board members to the point where we’re no longer surprised by these nonsensical resolutions,” she said. Some audience members booed, and then-president Gagnier reminded them that Kim was a student and to be “respectful.”
Na also publicly lashed out at the teen, declaring, “This is a perfect example of why you need to talk to your children. This is an appointment for us to see and hear what happens when you leave them alone with the wrong people.” He then suggested Kim was “brainwashed.”
What’s happening in Chino Valley, Kim says, is just one example of a religious “national movement that has been carefully orchestrated for a very long time.”
“We are finally seeing it surface, first in the form of attacks on marginalized communities, religion in politics, who knows what next,” Kim told The Daily Beast.
At last month’s rally at the state Capitol, Shaw shared that she grew up in a home without much parental involvement. Her mother was a heroin addict who died when she was young. Her father was from another country (Israel, she told The Daily Beast) and worked seven days a week.
Shaw was a frequent commenter at school board meetings during COVID-19 shutdowns, voicing opposition to Critical Race Theory and mask mandates via her group Parent Advocacy of Chino Valley. Sometimes she was hostile to the board, yelling and interrupting proceedings, according to footage. Calling herself “The Parent’s Voice” in campaign materials, she narrowly won election to the board by 317 votes thanks to door-knocking volunteers, Hibbs’ blessing, and a $50,000 donation from Charlie and Sherry Reynoso, who own a hardware company.
Jon Monroe, another newly-elected board member who’s voted in line with Cruz, Na, and Shaw, also received $50,000 from the couple.
In a phone call with The Daily Beast, Reynoso confirmed he is a member of Calvary Chapel but insisted he hadn’t heard about the school board race at church. Instead, he and Monroe coach high school sports together, and he thinks highly of him. “I just wanted to support them,” Reynoso said. “I just like Jon a lot. Jon is a good guy, he’s just a solid human being.”
“These actions show that we’re not worth protecting. They want us dead.”
Shaw says she decided to run for office after a local GOP operative approached her and urged someone in her parents’ group to vie for the open seat.
Her opponent was then-board president Gagnier, a technology lawyer and adjunct professor who has been featured as a legal expert on TV and in print. After Gagnier lost, she co-founded Our Schools USA with a former teacher in the district, Kristi Hirst, to combat misinformation and counter Moms for Liberty (M4L) and their ilk.
Our Schools has spent the last year spotlighting Shaw’s actions pre- and post- election, sharing footage of her yelling at Gagnier and board members; her speeches at political events as school board president; and her apparent collaborations with far-right agitators.
During an April board meeting, Shaw invited a director with Gays Against Groomers—a right-wing group aligned with M4L that calls gender-affirming care for minors “indoctrination” and “mutilation”—to lead the pledge of allegiance. She had also passed a resolution backing Assemblyman Essayli’s bill 1314, which would have required schools to tell parents if their child “is identifying at school as a gender that does not align with [their] sex on their birth certificate.”
When Essayli’s bill failed to get any traction, Shaw proposed a policy of her own. It immediately drew outrage from LGBTQ residents and allies, who said a significant percentage of trans kids feel safe at school but not at home.
Chino High School valedictorian Daniel Mora, who is gay, spoke in opposition.
“I can’t believe this is happening in my community,” said one Chino parent who has been a public school teacher for 22 years.
David McNew/Getty Images
Mora told the Daily Beast that he feels the policy “has nothing to do with parental rights” but “everything to do with outing trans kids because they don’t think people can be trans.” Mora points to the July board meeting, when Cruz called being transgender “a dismantling of our humanity” and “mental illness.” “We are saving children,” Cruz added. “Because we’re losing a lot of them. It is a death culture from the left.”
“I really don’t understand these types of policies,” Mora told us. “The majority of the people who live in Chino do not agree with this. Most people who speak at the meetings in support of these policies are outsiders. They’re outsiders invited by Sonja and the school board.” After Mora spoke at the board in June to oppose Shaw’s flag ban policy, someone yelled, “Your parents should be in jail!” in a moment captured on camera.
Max Ibarra, a transgender student who has fought the board’s anti-trans politics since 2021, told The Daily Beast that they know of several students who wanted to use new names and pronouns this year but will now stay in the closet. Ibarra says they came out last year and so the “outing” provision doesn’t apply to them.
“What they’re doing is dangerous,” Ibarra said of the board. “It’s a direct target on trans kids’ lives in the district, and they don’t care about that.” Shaw, Ibarra says, is pushing “trans panic” and “allows the members of her board to say horrible things.” Instead of stopping Cruz for publicly declaring trans was a “mental illness,” Shaw booted a student who yelled in protest at his comments, Ibarra said.
Speakers at board meetings routinely target the trans movement as an “evil ideology,” Ibarra said, making students feel unsafe. Ibarra makes sure they have a “buddy system” at meetings and someone to escort them back to their car.
Of the current board, Ibarra said, “They can say that they support every student all they want but actions speak louder than words. These actions show that we’re not worth protecting. They want us dead.”
Despite warnings about trans students’ mental health and safety, Shaw and fellow board member Monroe argue their policy ultimately protects kids by involving their parents.
Asked about arguments that some trans kids could face emotional, verbal, or physical abuse from guardians, Monroe said, “Those parents are in the minority.”
A person holds a sign in opposition to a policy that the Chino Valley school board passed in July that requires schools to notify parents if their child comes out as transgender.
David McNew/Getty Images
“The majority of the parents want what’s best for their kid,” he told The Daily Beast. “And so when you’re trying to enact policy, I’m going to go with the side that has the most benefit. That’s where I think the difference is going to be.”
Once a high school baseball coach and resource officer in the district, Monroe said that he expected pushback on the new rule. But he was surprised that local elected officials have declined the board’s invitation to talk in person—and by a flood of hate mail calling him “transphobic” and a “Nazi.”
“From the smallest local politics to the national stage, we’ve lost the ability to sit down and talk to somebody with a different ideology than our own,” Monroe added.
Recently, his secretary purchased tickets for himself and Shaw to attend a local Planned Parenthood event where Thurmond was featured as speaker. But an hour later, he says, their tickets were canceled. “I just find it very odd that I can’t go into an event of somebody that may have some different views than I do,” Monroe said.
“I don’t always think that I’m right,” he added. “As I was telling one couple, I have questions about our policy too. You can’t see the future and what happens.”
Cruz and Na didn’t return messages left by The Daily Beast
Don Bridge, elected in 2020 and the only member voting against Shaw’s handiwork, told us, “The pride flag banning and parental rights notification resolutions by our district is definitely anti-LGBTQ.”
Asked what it’s like to be the lone dissenter, Bridge said in an email: “It’s not that bad because I know I’m doing the right thing in standing up and advocating for ALL students.”
“I am worried because, as I used to teach my government students, the next election is always the most important. That occurs next year, in November 2024 when 3 seats will be up for election,” he wrote, adding that another Shaw ally could result in a “5-0 conservative board,” a future that an opposition group is working to prevent.
Andi Johnston, a school district spokesperson, said that the parental notification policy is aimed at student safety.
“The Parent Notification policy does protect transgender students by requiring staff to notify CPS/law enforcement if the student believes they are in danger or have been abused, injured, or neglected due to their parent or guardian knowing of their preferred gender identity,” Johnston added in a written statement, emphasis hers. “In these circumstances, CVUSD staff will not notify parents or guardians, but rather, wait for the appropriate agencies to complete their investigations regarding the concerns shared by the student.”
She said that while Bonta, Our Schools, and other organizations have called the policy dangerous, the district’s past and current practices “solidify staff’s priority to provide all students with a safe and positive educational experience.”
Sonja Shaw says critics have her wrong. According to her detractors, she’s a Moms for Liberty member or following their playbook, she’s affiliated with the Proud Boys and other extremists, and she’s a transphobic bigot following the agenda of Pastor Jack Hibbs.
In an interview, Shaw said she didn’t know much about M4L or the Proud Boys. “Some people have no intention other than trying to find something to make you look bad, right? That’s what I learned about the media,” she said. While she signed M4L’s candidate pledge, she says she’s not a member or otherwise involved with the group. Shaw has also claimed she didn’t know what the GOP was until she ran for office, and that her fight transcends party politics.
“If you actually look at my background, it’s not to come in and throw policies around,” Shaw told The Daily Beast. “It’s because there’s actually meaning to these things.”
Still, her targets are California Democrats and she calls Bonta, Thurmond and Newsom “a political cartel”; her policies lean decidedly Republican; and she’s a repeat guest on Fox News and the One America News Network.
A man wears an evangelical t-shirt and holds a banner in support of a policy that the Chino Valley school board is meeting to vote on which would require school staff to “out” students to their parents.
David McNew/Getty Images
After Bonta sued the district, Shaw called the legal action “another ploy to stop all the districts around California from adopting a common sense legal policy.” She told The Daily Beast, “Parents have a constitutional right in the upbringing of their children. Period. Bring it.”
Shaw is in the middle of a media tour of sorts, as she speaks at state hearings and political events. On Aug. 14, she spoke at a press conference co-organized by Freedom Angels, which is helmed by gun-toting anti-vaxxer survivalist moms. The rally targeted California bills that would limit book bans and make threatening or harassing a school employee a misdemeanor. (One intention behind the latter bill is to protect teachers from extremists.)
In mid-September, she is scheduled to speak at the Pray Vote Stand Summit in Washington, DC, organized by the Family Research Council, an evangelical nonprofit designated as an anti-LGBTQ hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. This lineup also includes Hibbs, former president Donald Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former vice president Mike Pence, and other boldfaced conservative names. The director of Hibbs’ Real Impact will lead a breakout session on how “individuals and churches can engage in ‘ballot harvesting.’”
Bonta and Thurmond have previously issued warning letters to the district when Na and Cruz proposed anti-trans policies. Shaw seems to welcome her place in their crosshairs.
According to Shaw, before Bonta’s office sued the district, his lawyers subpoenaed her school board emails for words like “woke,” “trans” and “hate” as part of its civil rights inquiry. “You’re making our staff spend hours looking for certain things that aren’t even there,” Shaw told us. “If you actually looked at my emails, I’m called the C-word. I’m called the B-word. My life is threatened, my kids are threatened.” She added, “and that’s ignored?”
Police recently arrested a 52-year-old Berkeley woman for allegedly threatening Shaw, who told media outlets a caller to the district warned they’d murder and “dismember” her.
Shaw routinely shares her hate mail on Instagram but insists that she’s received an outpouring of support, too, including from people in other countries.
“We have an opportunity to show the nation now because they’re all watching us,” Shaw told us. “If we can show that we can come together despite whatever people want to label us, I think just for the success of our children, that can be a really cool and beautiful thing.”
“Can you imagine what we can do together if we actually listen to each other?” she said.
Not everyone feels Shaw’s proclamations of unity are genuine. Citizens have taken to the podium to accuse Shaw of online bullying and having spies snap photos of teachers in schools.
Karen Reyes, one of Don Lugo High School’s intervention counselors, has accused Shaw of fomenting “hysteria” around a proposal to build a private office in her school’s wellness center, a place where students take mental health breaks. In public comments and on social media, Shaw has claimed this room could become a Planned Parenthood clinic. It resulted in the local chamber of commerce canceling a partnership to fundraise for the project.
Reyes told The Daily Beast that Shaw’s fear mongering led to people calling her and other counselors “pedophiles” and “groomers” and demanding they put cameras in the center. “It just feels like manufacturing crises for a larger agenda,” Reyes said.
At the board’s June meeting, another woman held up a poster printed with a photograph of a Don Lugo counselor’s office. The image was taken through a window and showed a rainbow flag and poster that read “What you say in here stays in here,” before listing exceptions such as abuse or self-harm. Someone snapped the photo for Shaw, who circulated it on Instagram. “You abused your power as a school board member to dox a district employee,” the speaker told Shaw, before claiming she was “instigating a community to attack this office and counselor on social media.”
Kelly McClister, another local mom, claimed that some parents “have been subjected to bullying and insults” by board members. She said that she filed a police report in December 2022 because Shaw posted her photo with her children to her social media account “for the purpose, I think, of calling me names.” And that Cruz, instead of responding to her emailed concerns, only replied that she was a “strange bird.”
The Daily Beast obtained a copy of Chino Police Department report indicating McClister wanted to document the “newly elected CVUSD official” who had been “talking badly about” her on Instagram. McClister told police she worried Shaw’s adherents would appear at her home.
McClister, a lifelong Chino Valley resident, told The Daily Beast that one of the biggest reasons she moved her kids from public to private schools was Calvary Chapel’s “overreach,” especially after one of its “Released Time” volunteers approached her son outside of school.
She says she’s emailed the board over the years expressing concerns about combination classes and other issues, but Na and Cruz “have never responded.” But after Shaw took office, she emailed the board again about what she calls Shaw’s “unprofessional” social media posts with spelling and grammatical errors and shared concerns that an “under-educated” person was board president.
Shaw didn’t reply. Instead she tagged McClister in an Instagram story. “I show people when people call me names, and say bad things about me,” Shaw told us, insisting that she crossed out McClister’s name in her post.
“Because I think it’s important for people to see what we’re dealing with too,” Shaw added. “Because when you have all this hate by people who say that we’re hating, I think it’s ironic, right?”
From Shaw’s perspective, the last iteration of the board didn’t listen to parents, “exited” them from schools with vaccine and mask rules, and enabled an air of secrecy. She said that when she spoke to people on the campaign trail, secrecy was the No. 1 issue.
“You would hear over and over stories where parents would say, ‘I found out for about six months, my child was being bullied, the schools knew, there was a record, but I was never notified.’ You heard stuff about kids wanting to possibly commit suicide … and it was alarming that they found out that the school or the teacher knew and never notified them.”
The opposition from Thurmond and Bonta has only strengthened her resolve.
“We’re not going to back down. We’re not going to step down. Our board majority was voted in for a reason,” Shaw said, “and we’re going to make sure that reason is carried out.”