Summer Boismier made headlines when she resigned from teaching English at Norman High School in Oklahoma last month.
She faced what she considered to be a district book ban effort in response to the state’s new law, HB 1775, restricting how race and gender identity could be discussed in schools. The legislation is one of several passed since 2021 across the country, known as anti-critical race theory laws.
Administrators were concerned with students accessing books with themes that could elicit a complaint under the law, so Boismier covered up her classroom texts with butcher paper. But a parent later filed a complaint after Boismier also put up QR codes which, when scanned, offered students a link to apply for a Brooklyn Public Library card granting access to online books in any state. She submitted her resignation on Aug. 23; it took effect the following day.
In a statement, the district said: “The teacher had, during class time, made personal political statements and used their classroom to make a political display expressing those opinions. ... As soon as they were available, we met with the teacher to address the concern and expected them to return to class as normal. At no point was the teacher ever terminated, suspended, or placed on administrative leave.”
Since then, the state’s own secretary of education, Ryan Walters, publicly demanded that the state board of education revoke Boismier’s teaching certificate. (In Oklahoma the state superintendent is the top official in charge of public schools, not the education secretary.) The former Norman teacher has faced online threats and harassment.
Boismier spoke with Education Week about the broad impact of HB 1775 and what she wants those who wish to support teachers in Oklahoma can do.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What happened at your school this summer?
What had happened over the summer is our education secretary had been posting online a few YA titles, Gender Queer being one of them, Flamer being another, and associating those titles with obscenity and pornography. So what had occurred is there was a moral panic that had been created by these texts.
So there were basically a couple of options that were given [by my district]. A lot of the guidance, and a lot of the directive, had been related specifically to school libraries at that point. We were required to districtwide go through our official reading lists: the texts that show up on a syllabus, for example, and provide detailed rationales for those texts. That was never something we’ve had to do before. You may have to rationalize introducing a new text because usually district money would be required to purchase those, but we never had to do it retroactively.
We were given a document that, when asked, I was told that it came from upper administration and the school board that essentially laid out some of the options for teachers regarding classroom libraries. To put it in a nutshell, we were tasked with either removing or restricting access to texts. So we could go through our classroom libraries and pull those texts that have to do with race and gender, and which might elicit an HB 1775 complaint. I have never had to do that before. I’ve never had any issues with my classroom library before.
The other option was to restrict student access for the time being. That raised some red flags … because how long is the short term? Like are we talking a week? Are we talking a semester, are we talking a whole year? And I would not fault a student, for instance, who walked into my classroom saw those texts restricted and—because I didn’t say anything—assumed that I was complicit, or at least in some way tacitly agreed with the labeling of stories that primarily center LGBTQ+ perspectives and [perspectives of Black, Indigenous, and people of color]. . I can’t do what I do having students think that way.
Relationships and inclusivity in the classroom is a foundational aspect for all of the curricular instruction that we do throughout the year. If that doesn’t exist, if students can’t trust me to engage respectfully with their identities, what’s the point of me being there at all?
Why did you resign?
In English specifically, we can’t do what we need to do without books. So it would in my mind be startling if a student walked into an English classroom and there were no books on display. One thing I refuse to do is be a party to censorship in any way, shape, or form. Whether that censorship is an effort to protect teachers from unfair legislation, or an effort to dictate by folks—who honestly have no business doing that dictating—what information students have access to.
There were several reasons why I ultimately chose to resign. I chose to resign of my own volition, firing was never on the table. I left because it is an impossible situation to do what I do with HB 1775 hanging over my head. We [teachers] all know, because there’s research, there’s data, [and] it’s pretty ingrained into best practices, that educational outcomes improve when all the stakeholders involved can collaborate. That is the classroom teacher; that’s administration, that’s the students themselves, parents, guardians, the community. And what HB 1775 has essentially forced us in Oklahoma to do as teachers is we have to hold those stakeholders at arm’s length.
Because there’s no due process in that law, and it tries to legislate intent and feelings, rather than ideas and impact, there’s a lot of uncertainty about what exactly could elicit this violation? Well, someone feels uncomfortable. Okay, that seems like a “floor is lava” scenario here.
What impact is Oklahoma’s HB 1775 having on schools?
In Oklahoma, this particular school year has been launched with an environment that I’ve never seen before in all my years in education, and that’s including our COVID-19 years. And that environment was specifically created because of HB 1775.
It is incredibly vague. It is incredibly patronizing. And it’s designed to essentially elicit uncertainty. And when that uncertainty is created, school districts, teachers are going to have knee-jerk reactions, because we don’t know how exactly you comply with this law.
Late July, our state board voted to downgrade the accreditation of two of the state’s largest school districts, Tulsa public schools and Mustang public schools, because of alleged HB 1775 violations. That accreditation downgrade created an environment of panic and fear in our public school districts.
This legislation, which is inherently fear-based, has created a rock and a hard place situation, or to use a banned book reference, a Catch-22. Districts are having to choose between protecting their teachers versus remaining open. And it’s an impossibly difficult situation. Teachers are now having essentially to choose as well, between their principles, what we know to be best practices, and their paychecks. Needless to say, that does not create an educational environment conducive to learning.
What impact is HB 1775 having on teachers specifically?
Teachers need to raise the alarms as the content area experts about what this law is doing. But what people don’t realize is that the onus is always put back for some reason on educators—as if we are saints, martyrs, or superheroes. No, we’re just working professionals who want to be able to make a living.
I do not blame anyone for choosing a paycheck. Principles don’t keep the lights on. And teachers are also looking at what has happened with my situation. At the end of the day, I shared a library card. And now I can’t stay at my house, because people have doxed me. I have both the secretary of education and members of the Oklahoma state House, who are calling on the board to revoke my certification, which would in turn prevent me from being able to work as a classroom teacher in this state. Teachers are doing a cost-benefit analysis. They’re constantly vilified. They’re constantly assumed to be the enemy here and they’re leaving.
So what comes next?
I think it is wild that I had to leave the classroom to tell the truth.
What I am working toward right now is finding ways that I can support my colleagues who are still in the classroom, that I can support the students who have been directly attacked by legislation like this, because of who they inherently are.
To folks who are asking the question, “How do I help?” Number one, trust your teachers in Oklahoma, and really nationwide as well. Listen to your teachers. Respect your teachers as the professionals they are.
We have an election coming up, which is going to be quite consequential for our public schools. Our governor is running for reelection, the secretary of education is running to be in charge of the public schools. Be vocal in a way that your teachers might not be able to, because of the climate created and the sword hanging over their heads in their professional capacities. Vote for pro-education candidates.
Don’t let this be a fishbowl moment. I would say to buy the books, [support] these authors, these creators who have really done us a profound service in identifying a gap in the literature, and attempting to fill it in and be able to validate and represent the identities of many of our students that haven’t been traditionally represented. Push back. And don’t just do that on Facebook. Contribute to organizations that are public school adjacent that prioritize civil liberties, like the [American Civil Liberties Union], like the Brooklyn Library, like our local libraries. Value [teachers] for the expertise that they have. Pay them accordingly.
Clara Luper was a teacher who also took a stand and organized some of the first students here in Oklahoma during the civil rights movement. I think if teachers can’t stand for their kids, and especially their kids with these historically marginalized identities, then what’s the point of doing anything that we do?
It comes down to two stark choices in terms of what we want out of public education: Do we want it to be exclusionary? Or do we want it to be inclusive?
A version of this article appeared in the September 28, 2022 edition of Education Week as A Teacher Who ‘Refused to Be Party To Censorship’ Tells Her Story