Heyworth junior high teacher removed over LGBTQ+ sex education book
A Heyworth junior high school teacher has resigned following an uproar from some parents.
Sarah Bonner became the epicenter of a social media frenzy sparked by a book in Bonner’s eighth grade English classroom which had been made available to students, although not specifically assigned.
"This Book Is Gay" is an informal and comedic take on an early high school sexual education book. It covers topics such as dating, early sexual urges, and safe sex practices. As the title suggests, the book centralizes the perspective of LGBTQ+ people, discussing the cultural stigma surrounding the community and, most controversially, giving brief descriptions of some sex acts. Along with two cartoon diagrams of sexual anatomy, this gave rise to a wave of parental anger and online harassment culminating in Thursday's meeting.
The meeting drew about 85 attendees, 11 of whom took to the podium to speak for or against Bonner. Some parents insisted that the book’s “disturbing” content was inappropriate for children, and such issues are to be taught at home. Also common was the insistence that non-straight sexual activity remain “behind closed doors.”
Many parents, such as Karen Maharas, shared some concerns but were also open to the book’s potential value.
“I can understand that topics of sexual education, gender identity, et cetera, can be viewed as topics parents should cover within home,” she said, “but not all parents are willing or able to have such conversations with their children. And if parents can’t or won’t talk with their children, then who will?”
A handful of attendees were students or instructors at Illinois State University, where Bonner is also an instructor in teaching and learning. One, doctoral student Bryanna Tidmarsh, spoke in Bonner’s defense, arguing LGBTQ+ students benefit from literature that reflects their experiences, and that teaching heterosexual sex education in the sixth grade while neglecting other identities constitutes “institutionalized homophobia.”
Tidmarsh was far from alone in pointing out how LGBTQ+ materials are treated differently from other texts. Clinical social worker and parent of three Heyworth students Krista Reichart-Lunny approached the podium bearing a stack of children’s books, each featuring material similarly explicit to "This Book Is Gay," and most intended for far younger ages. These books covered only heterosexual sex.
“I just wanted to demonstrate that the content (critics of the book) were talking about, that the 'explicit' nature of it was not because of what it showed, the actual pictures … it was focusing on the fact that the book was referencing gay orientation,” Reichart-Lunny said after the meeting.
Two of Bonner’s former students spoke highly of their experiences with Bonner. Recent Heyworth High School graduate Colin Norsworthy reinforced points in favor of "This Book Is Gay" and recalled his experiences being bullied for his sexuality in school. Current sophomore Allison Huebner emphasized Bonner’s classroom as a warm refuge from a sometimes unwelcoming atmosphere.
“I am a queer student here, and I know many other peers that are afraid to go to their parents and tell them who they truly are and identify with,” Huebner said. “I know that some parents may think that their kids are completely comfortable and happy, but I’m telling you, some of them have very difficult lives, and it’s very difficult to tell other parents that.”
While the majority of the public discussion was civil, some speakers on both sides of the issue faced mockery or insults from other attendees in the crowd, on one occasion escalating to a brief argument.
Following public comments, the board moved to a private session to discuss the terms of Bonner’s separation agreement, negotiating what superintendent Lisa Taylor called an "involuntary resignation." The board passed the agreement with a 7-0 vote. When asked if Bonner’s example might give other teachers pause when discussing minority groups in the classroom, Taylor said she plans to address the issue with staff.
“We really have some repairing to do,” Taylor said.
As Bonner had been on administrative leave since last Friday, the school had already secured a temporary substitute to serve until spring break, and now has found another to teach for the remainder of the semester. A replacement will most likely be hired before the next school year.
Bonner, who was present for the board's vote, declined to speak with reporters after the meeting.