Sarah Bonner has been an Illinois middle school teacher for 20 years, and she has always tried to offer her students a diverse collection of books.
This year, a parent called the police over her book choice.
It started on Monday, March 13, 2023, when she held what she calls a “book tasting” for students.
“I wanted to give them a smattering of fiction and nonfiction to choose from on a day that 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 bestselling nonfiction book that’s billed by its publisher as an entertaining and informative “instruction manual” for anyone coming out as lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans.
“By Wednesday, I received notice that parents had gotten a hold of pictures from that book that their child had taken in class,” Bonner says. “By Friday, I was told that parents had filed a police report against me for child endangerment.”
TODAY.com reached out to the local chief of police, who confirmed the report but declined to comment further.
“The notion that I was putting children in danger because of books — I didn’t feel safe,” Bonner says. “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 tough time acclimating to bigger, 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 says included “a diverse library of texts,” including books centering Black, Indigenous and LGBTQ characters and themes.
“I’ve been fortunate up until now to be supported by the communities that I’ve taught with,” Bonner says. “The signs (of a potential issue) started at the beginning of this school year ... and this heightened culture war that’s continuing to build nationwide.”
More than 1,600 books were banned during the 2021-2022 school year, according to a report from PEN America, a nonprofit 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 to a 2020 National Literacy Trust research report, most kids aged 9-18 say it’s “important to read books from a range of backgrounds.”
Nearly half said that they liked to read stories with characters “who are different from them.”
Those in favor of banning books in school often argue they’re protecting children from inappropriate content and advocating for parental rights in school.
Bonner says that she understands 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 all students, not just a singular student,” she adds. “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.’”
‘What about the kids?’
The day after Bonner learned about 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 duties for the school district.”
TODAY.com reached out to a school district’s superintendent for comment but did not immediately hear back.
Bonner says she decided to resign.
“I couldn’t be the professional I’ve worked hard to be,” 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 during the board meeting to say that her classroom was “a safe place.”
“If I am a safe place and I’m leaving, what does that do for our students?” Bonner asks. “‘What about the kids?’ has always been a question rooted in everything I do.
“Thinking about what happens to them was definitely hard,” she 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 the events have played out over the last week, there’s a piece of me that isn’t surprised.”
“It’s really interesting that people continue to use the word ‘teacher shortage,’“ she says. “I don’t believe that there’s a teacher shortage. There is a lack of acknowledgement of the profession itself.”
An estimated 300,000 public-school teachers and staff left the profession between February, 2020 and May, 2022.
“There are plenty 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 get into this space, given the conditions that exist?”
Bonner recently completed her doctorate.
“Our students deserve to be seen as thinkers and as people who can think critically — they need the ability to ask questions,” Bonner says, adding that her middle school students are just 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 middle school teacher at heart, regardless of where I am and what I do.”