Sarah Bonner has been a high school teacher in Illinois for 20 years and has always tried to offer her students a diverse collection of books.
This year, a parent called the police on his choice of books.
It began on Monday, March 13, 2023, when she held what she calls a “book tasting” for students.
“I wanted to give you a little bit of fiction and nonfiction to choose from on a day we call ‘Reading Monday,’” Bonner, 42, told TODAY.com. “We just read and celebrate books.”
One of those books was Juno Dawson’s. «This book is gay.» It’s a best-selling nonfiction book that its publisher bills as an entertaining and informative «how-to» for anyone who comes out as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.
“By Wednesday, I got a tip that the parents had gotten pictures of that book their son had taken in class,” Bonner says. “By Friday, they told me that the parents had filed a police report against me for endangering a child.”
TODAY.com contacted the local police chief, who confirmed the report but declined to comment further.
“The idea that I was putting the kids in danger because of the books: I didn’t feel safe,” says Bonner. «I knew I couldn’t go back.»
‘Things have really changed for students.’
Over the years, Bonner has watched her students graduate and go to college, only to return a year later because, she says, «they had a hard time getting used to larger, more diverse spaces.»
“I wanted to do something to support them,” said Bonner, who has a 10-year-old son.
After listening to her students’ questions and interests, Bonner structured a curriculum that she said included «a diverse library of texts,» including books focused on Black, Indigenous, and LGBTQ characters and themes.
“So far I’ve been lucky to have the support of the communities I’ve taught with,” says Bonner. «Signs (of a potential problem) began at the beginning of this school year … and this intensified culture war that continues to play out across the country.»
More than 1,600 books were banned during the 2021-2022 school year, according to a report by PEN Americaa non-profit group that advocates for free expression in literature.
More than half of the books banned or challenged had LGBTQ themes.
“It’s not necessarily about what happened to me,” Bonner adds. «It’s about how things have really changed for students.»
According a 2020 National Literacy Trust research reportmost kids ages 9 to 18 say it’s «important to read books from a variety of backgrounds.»
Nearly half said they liked reading stories with characters «who are different from them.»
Those in favor of banning books at school often argue that they are protecting children from inappropriate content and advocating for parental rights at school.
Bonner says she understands that parents “know their children best” and believes that both parents and educators have that “love and care” in common.
«The difference is that I have that love and care for everyone students, not just a singular student,” he adds. “Regarding the book that was challenged in my classroom, it was a message to the LGBTQ+ community in my classroom and in my district that they are ‘less than.’”
What happen with the kids?
The day after Bonner learned of the police report, she received a letter from her school district: She had been placed on paid administrative leave.
TODAY.com reviewed a copy of the letter, which said in part that the district «recently became aware of certain allegations» against Bonner and was «currently investigating.» Until the investigation was complete, Bonner was told «not to perform any assignments for the school district.»
TODAY.com reached out to the superintendent of a school district for comment but did not immediately hear back.
Bonner says he decided to quit.
“I couldn’t be the professional I’ve worked so hard for,” she says.
The following Thursday, the school district held a special board meeting and voted unanimously to accept Bonner’s resignation.
“My first instinct was the kids,” Bonner says, adding that many of her current and former students spoke up during the board meeting to say her classroom was “a safe place.”
“If I am a safe place and I leave, what does that mean for our students?” Bonner asks. «‘What happen with the kids?’ It has always been a question rooted in everything I do.
«Thinking about what happens to them was definitely difficult,» he adds.
‘I will always be a teacher’
TODAY.com reviewed a copy of Bonner’s one-page resignation letter, which said in part that while Bonner was «saddened by how events have unfolded over the past week, there’s a part of me that’s not surprised.»
“It’s very interesting that people keep using the word ‘teacher shortage,’” he says. “I don’t think there is a shortage of teachers. There is a lack of recognition of the profession itself.”
An estimated 300,000 public school teachers and staff left the profession. between February 2020 and May 2022.
“There are a lot of people who want to work with students, who believe in education and the ability to engage young people,” Bonner adds. “But what motivates you to go into this space, given the conditions that exist?”
Bonner recently completed his Ph.D.
“Our students deserve to be seen as thinkers and as people who can think critically; they need the ability to ask questions,” says Bonner, adding that her high school students are only four years away from being able to vote.
“Our students need teachers now more than ever,” Bonner adds. “I will always be a teacher, and I will always be a high school teacher at heart, regardless of where I am and what I do.”