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In this small Illinois town, beware the book police

School district places teacher on leave and police seize books after parents complain about reading assignment that included LGBTQ-themed book.
Cover of Juno Dawson's "This Book is Gay" with the silhouette of a police officer

An Illinois teacher is out of a job after a group of parents accused her of “child grooming” for including an LGBTQ-themed book in a reading assignment for eighth grade students in the town of Heyworth. The book is one of nearly a hundred of all different subjects and themes provided to students back in March as part of the assignment, and Heyworth Chief of Police Michael Geriets seized dozens of books during his sprawling, weeks-long investigation.

According to documents obtained by FIRE through an open records request, parents accused the school of “dropping the ball” by allowing Heyworth Junior High School teacher Sarah Bonner to remain in the classroom after she included Juno Dawson’s “This Book is Gay” in a “book tasting” reading assignment in which students were encouraged to sample a wide range of books. Some of the parents only became aware of the controversy after reports initially surfaced on social media. According to the police report, parents suggested to Chief Geriets that the book is inappropriate for 14-year-olds and, because of this, called for an investigation and said Bonner “should be suspended immediately and possibly terminated.” 

That’s where things should have ended. Parents have every right to voice concerns about matters involving their children. But absent a credible allegation of criminal conduct — and including an LGBTQ-themed book as one of a hundred books for student consideration isn’t a crime — any investigation should have been initiated by the school, not the police. After meeting with the aggrieved parents, however, it was Chief Geriets himself who contacted the principal and said he was “officially looking into the allegations” and “was proceeding with a fact-finding investigation to determine whether or not a crime was actually committed.”

Per school policy, Bonner was placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of the police investigation. Unfortunately, according to the police report, Bonner resigned soon after, informing the school and her union representative that she was unlikely to ever teach in Heyworth again because of “the reactions of people on social media.”

McLean County Incident Report title page
Excerpt from McLean County Incident Report #202303924

Books seized by police

Three days after opening a criminal investigation that never should have happened in the first place, Chief Geriets held an in-person meeting with the district superintendent and school principal. The chief was provided with documentation about the school’s internal investigation into Bonner, including a timeline of events and numerous emails between Bonner, parents, and school officials. According to those emails, one parent emailed Bonner the day after the reading assignment, livid about the presence of an LGBTQ-themed book.

“I was texted by my daughter yesterday regarding books that were offered and provided to them for reading class,” one parent wrote in an email to Bonner on March 15 that was included in the police report. “Why are there books promoting and teaching about sexual orientation and sexual pleasure? There were several books like this available about gay and transgender and this isn’t something acceptable for my kids to be learning about at school.”

Bonner replied to the parent, stating that there were “over 100 books students could choose to explore that day” and that she followed suggestions from the American Library Association and the National Council of Teachers of English in assembling the book list.

Bonner was never charged with a crime, nor did any parents complain of anything coming close to criminal conduct. Nevertheless, her life was turned upside down and she was forced out of a job she loved.

The parent also shared her complaints with the principal, who said she was only made aware of the allegations against the teacher through media reports and that the school was opening an investigation into the matter.

That evening, parents also attended the local school board meeting to amplify their complaints and, according to the timeline of events provided to Chief Geriets by the school, by 9 p.m. — less than 12 hours after the first complaints were emailed — all the books had been removed from Bonner’s classroom.

Screenshot of the McLean County Incident Report
Excerpt from McLean County Incident Report #202303924

During a meeting with the school principal and district superintendent on March 20, Chief Geriets seized 51 books as part of his investigation into Bonner. According to the police report, which at times reads like dystopian fiction reminiscent of “Fahrenheit 451” or “1984,” the chief wrote, “Those books were later transported to the Heyworth Police Department for review.”

Judging a book by its cover — literally

Over the next few weeks, Chief Geriets conducted formal interviews with several parents who complained about Bonner’s reading suggestions.

Although several parents were upset about the presence of the book in the classroom, only one provided any evidence that their child had actually seen the book, whereas others said their child “did not actually see the contents of the book” but did “see the outside of the book . . . and overheard other students talking about the book.”

When informed by Chief Geriets that an interview would need to be conducted with their children in order to file a criminal complaint, all the parents declined and said they did not wish to pursue any formal charges against Bonner. According to the police report, one parent said “they were just trying to bring this to the attention of the school and that she didn’t even want the teacher to be fired over this.”

Screenshot of the McLean County Incident Report
Excerpt from McLean County Incident Report #202303924

“As of the end of this investigation,” Chief Geriets wrote, “I still do not know of one student who actually picked up the book and looked inside at the actual contents of the book.”

The exception, he said, was one child who was instructed by her parents to take a picture of the book the following day, which one of the parents shared with the local news media, leading to the uproar on social media. Chief Geriets concluded, “It is unlikely that [the student] would have seen the contents of the book if it wasn’t for following the instructions of her mother to take photos.”

This was a witch hunt, pure and simple. Chief Geriets should have never opened an investigation into Bonner. If not for his investigation — which directly resulted in Bonner being pulled from the classroom — she might still have a job today.

Bonner was never charged with a crime, nor did any parents complain of anything coming close to criminal conduct. Nevertheless, her life was turned upside down and she was forced out of a job she loved.

Now students in Heyworth have one less dedicated English teacher. “I wanted to give them a smattering of fiction and nonfiction to choose from on a day that we call ‘Reading Monday,’” Bonner told Today in a recent interview. “We just read and celebrate books.”

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