News (USA)

Parents called the police on a teacher who offered students an LGBTQ+ book

Librarian with books
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A middle school teacher in Illinois quit her job after parents reported her to the police for offering an LGBTQ+-themed book to her students.

“The notion that I was putting children in danger because of books — I didn’t feel safe,” National Council of Teachers of English award-winning teacher Sarah Bonner told Today.com. “I knew I couldn’t go back.”

In mid-March, Bonner held what she calls a “book tasting,” offering her eighth-grade English students at Heyworth Junior High School a variety of fiction and nonfiction books. One of the books was Juno Dawson’s This Book is Gay, a nonfiction work about sexuality and gender aimed at young adults that centers the LGBTQ+ experience. The book was among the 13 most challenged books of 2022, according to a list compiled by the American Library Association.  

Bonner, who is also an instructor at Illinois State University and the co-author of a guide to developing classrooms that welcome curiosity and ignite social action, said that in her 20 years of teaching she has aimed to prepare her students for the more diverse environments they may encounter after graduating. She has included books centering Black, Indigenous, and LGBTQ+ characters and themes in her curriculum.

“I’ve been fortunate up until now to be supported by the communities that I’ve taught with,” she said.

But within days of the March “book tasting,” Bonner said, “I received notice that parents had gotten a hold of pictures from that book that their child had taken in class. By Friday, I was told that parents had filed a police report against me for child endangerment.”

A day later, Bonner received a letter from Heyworth Community Unit School District 4 informing her that she had been placed on administrative leave pending an investigation. She decided to resign.

A March 24 special school board meeting to address Bonner’s resignation drew 85 attendees, according to WGLT, 11 of whom spoke against her. Others, including current and former students as well as students at Illinois State University, defended Bonner and This Book is Gay. ISU doctoral student Bryanna Tidmarsh reportedly argued that LGBTQ+ students benefit from literature that reflects their experiences and that teaching heterosexual sex education while neglecting other identities constitutes “institutionalized homophobia.”

Krista Reichart-Lunny, a clinical social worker and parent of three Heyworth students, argued that critics of This Book is Gay had a problem with the book’s focus on LGBTQ+ identity, not its “explicit” content. She brought a stack of children’s books focused on heterosexual identity that feature material similar to what can be found in This Book is Gay to the podium to demonstrate her point.

A current Heyworth sophomore who identified as queer described Bonner’s classroom as a “refuge,” according to WGLT.

Following the public comments, the board voted unanimously to accept Bonner’s resignation.

Bonner said that she’s concerned about the students she’s leaving behind. “If I am a safe place and I’m leaving, what does that do for our students?” she said. “Thinking about what happens to them was definitely hard.”

She also noted that the current “heightened culture war” around education in the U.S. is having a devastating effect on the teaching profession. Across the country, Republicans are pushing state-level laws restricting what can be taught in schools, specifically in regards to issues of racism and LGBTQ+ topics. Meanwhile, relentless harassment, smear campaigns, and even threats of violence from far-right anti-LGBTQ+ groups like Moms for Liberty are driving more moderate officials off local school boards and pro-LGBTQ+ educators out of the education system.

As the New York Times reported last November, this is one of many factors leading teachers to quit in droves. As Today.com notes, an estimated 300,000 public school teachers and staff left the profession between February 2020 and May 2022.

“It’s really interesting that people continue to use the word ‘teacher shortage,’” Bonner said. “There are plenty of people who want to work with students — who believe in education and the ability to engage young people. But what motivates you to get into this space, given the conditions that exist?”

Many of the anti-LGBTQ+ laws affecting schools are being pushed under the banner of “parental rights.” But while Bonner said that she understands that parents “know their children best,” she suggested that proponents of so-called “parental rights” are only concerned with their rights and not the rights of LGBTQ+ affirming parents and their children.  

“The difference is that I have that love and care for all students, not just a singular student,” she said. “In regards to the book that was challenged in my classroom, it was a message to the LGBTQ+ community in my room and in my district that they’re ‘less than.’”

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