Sarasota Herald-Tribune | By Ryan McKinnon | August 26, 2021
Bridget Ziegler has spent much of the last seven years on the losing end of votes, as a staunch conservative on the Sarasota County School Board.
But her influence beyond Sarasota has exploded in recent months.
In December, Ziegler teamed with two former school board members to launch “Moms For Liberty,” a grassroots organization that advocates for parental rights in schools.
In June, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the Parents’ Bill of Rights into law, a piece of legislation that Ziegler helped develop following several Sarasota School Board battles in 2018 and 2019.
Now, Moms For Liberty has chapters all over the country, with members leading the charge against school district mask mandates. And the Parents’ Bill of Rights is the linchpin to DeSantis’ argument that school districts cannot require students to wear masks.
With a nationwide movement launched and a key legislative victory in recent months, Ziegler said most of the credit belongs to what she characterizes as overreaching and out-of-touch local school boards.
“The behavior that I have seen for years is causing people to be fed up, and it’s happening across a lot of states and counties,” Ziegler said.
The Parents’ Bill of Rights has become central to the position that school districts cannot impose mask mandates.
Ziegler helped craft the bill following a Sarasota Schools gender policy in 2018 that made it optional for school officials to notify parents if their elementary school-aged child chose to go by different pronouns or use a different bathroom.
At the time, Ziegler said parents’ rights were being trampled by school officials who thought they knew better.
Now that Ziegler’s position has been codified into state law, it is the same argument that DeSantis’ lawyers made this week in a Tallahassee courtroom, defending the governor’s stance against mandated masking in schools.
While it’s been a successful year for Ziegler, some of her fellow board members are aghast at the lengths she has gone to advance her causes, often after losing in the boardroom.
“This is against anything that I have ever known an active sitting school board member do,” board vice chairwoman Jane Goodwin said.
The fight over masks is heated, and Goodwin, who supports a mask mandate, said rabid Ziegler supporters had been harassing her since the vote last Friday.
“It’s getting really, really scary the way these people are acting,” Goodwin said. “She pretends that all this other stuff doesn’t happen. She is involved in these rogue groups.”
Moms For Liberty
Ziegler is no longer officially affiliated with Moms For Liberty, but she unabashedly supports the organization’s mission. She said she was spread too thin and stepped down from leadership in the movement in February.
The group now has chapters throughout the country and enjoys mentions by right wing commenters like Tucker Carlson.
School board meetings throughout the country have become showdowns between aggrieved, mostly white, conservative parents and school officials, and many of those groups have prominently featured Moms For Liberty.
Although Ziegler helped launch the organization, Sarasota did not have a local branch until roughly three weeks ago.
Alexis Spiegelman, a mother of children within the district, recently started the Sarasota chapter to unite the disparate groups of frustrated parents who have been speaking out at board meetings throughout the year.
Monday will be the first day Sarasota enforces its new mask mandate, and parents affiliated with the group are planning to send their child to school without a mask. They will not be requesting a medical opt-out, and instead will be sending a note saying their child will not comply, Spiegelman said.
“We have group leaders and school leaders at almost every school in our county right now,” Spiegelman said. “We are organized, we’ve got resources for them, and we are not backing down.”
Spiegelman said the chapter grew to nearly 1,000 local members after last Friday’s decision to mandate masks within schools. She said on Sunday evening the chapter held an informational meeting and had somewhere between 250 and 300 people show up in person to learn about how they can participate. (The Herald-Tribune was not at this meeting and cannot confirm these numbers definitively.)
While the parents’ passion is undeniable, it’s impossible to predict how many children will refuse to wear a mask.
In recent years, parents have formed similar opt-out movements to resist standardized tests. While the numbers were far smaller than the mask issue, the parents spoke just as passionately about civil disobedience and resisting public school overreach.
The anti-testing movement garnered media attention and, at times, consumed school boards’ attention as they considered what to do if students refused to take the state test.
When it came time for testing though, only a tiny number of students actually refused to take the test. However, they proved how disruptive even a small threat of system-wide civil disobedience can be.
Moms For Liberty is significantly more organized and widespread than the anti-testing parents were, and they are taking on an issue that has the entire country divided.
School officials, as of Wednesday, still had not said what would happen if students show up to school without a mask.
Last weekend, Superintendent Brennan Asplen emailed School Board members, telling them it was “almost impossible” to implement a mask mandate, largely out of fear of noncompliance.
“How do we control the optics if we turn away 1,000 students at a high school because they won’t wear a mask?” Asplen asked.
On Wednesday, Sarasota School Board chairwoman Shirley Brown emailed Ziegler, asking her to encourage parents to not show up at schools to protest.
“As a founding member of Moms for Liberty, I’m reaching out to you to use your influence to let these groups know how reckless it is for them to protest at the entrance to our schools,” Brown wrote in an email obtained by the Herald-Tribune. “… Why would these people want to frighten children with crowds and yelling as they are entering school?”
Ziegler said rather than focusing on her role in helping start an organization nine months ago, the board should look at the disruption that its mask mandate has caused.
“I don’t believe any of these parents intend to create chaos,” Ziegler said. “I think it is these three board members who have created chaos. Our young kids and our staff who have no authority in this situation are put right in the middle. I think that disruption falls right on the shoulders of Tom (Edwards), Shirley (Brown) and Jane (Goodwin).”