One day in March, Katie Rinderle, a fifth-grade teacher in Cobb County, Georgia, read “My Shadow Is Purple” by Scott Stuart, which she had purchased at an in-school book fair, to her class. Now, she’s fighting to get her job back.
In June, a monthslong investigation determined that she should be terminated from her position at Due West Elementary School because reading the book had violated a Georgia law which bans educators from teaching about so-called “divisive concepts” like systemic racism — but the school district hasn’t yet explained which part of the law Rinderle had broken.
The book is about acceptance, being true to oneself and moving beyond the gender binary.
“I really resonated with its message of acceptance of oneself and others, and every book I had in my classroom is one of acceptance,” Rinderle told CNN. “I knew that this book would fit perfectly in my classroom.”
According to Rinderle, a parent complaint led to an investigation by the Cobb County School District of the 10-year veteran teacher, and the elementary school’s principal asked Rinderle to resign. When she declined, she was terminated.
Last year, Republican Gov. Brian Kemp signed three educational laws that impacted what teachers can say and do in the classroom — and empowered parents to file complaints against educators they presumed to be in violation of these laws.
“After these laws were passed, it created a ripple of fear among teachers,” Craig Goodmark, a Georgia-based attorney who is representing Rinderle, told HuffPost.
Rinderle has been accused of violating the “divisive concepts” law, which prohibits teachers from discussing “divisive” issues such as saying that the United States is fundamentally racist. The law does not mention discussions or instruction on gender. (It does, however, carve out exceptions for teaching about racism in an academic context so long as educators are objective.) School districts are responsible for creating their own complaint processes.
As soon as it was passed, Georgia educators criticized the law for being too vague and difficult to interpret.
“It’s unclear if one particular parent would draw the line somewhere that the community at large would not draw the line,” Georgia Association of Educators President Lisa Morgan said last July. “How will principals and administrators handle that parent?”
“This has really caused a chaotic impact in the classroom where teachers don’t know what they can and can’t teach.”
In Cobb County, it seems as though a single parent complaint can lead to an investigation and eventual removal.
Rinderle and her lawyer have both said that the school has not yet explained how reading “My Shadow Is Purple” was against the law. “When Katie was being investigated, she asked what part of the law she was violating,” Goodmark said. “And they couldn’t tell her.”
When HuffPost asked the school district which part of the law Rinderle had broken, a spokesperson said that all the facts and policies would be reviewed at a hearing set for Aug. 3: “Without getting into specifics of the personnel investigation, the District is confident the hearing is appropriate considering the entirety of the teacher’s behavior and history. The District remains committed to strictly enforcing all Board policy, and the law.”
The impact of the vague law goes beyond just Rinderle’s firing. “This has really caused a chaotic impact in the classroom where teachers don’t know what they can and can’t teach,” Goodmark said. “No one really understands how it’s supposed to be interpreted and it’s bad for Georgia students.”
Education and civil rights groups have announced their plans to sue the state of Georgia over its “divisive concepts” law, which they’re calling a censorship law. Last November the Southern Poverty Law Center, National Education Association and Georgia Association of Educators sent a letter of intent to the state.
“Efforts to expand our multicultural democracy through public education are being met with frantic efforts in Georgia to censor educators, ban books, and desperate measures to suppress teaching the truth about slavery and systemic racism,” Mike McGonigle, general counsel for the GAE, said in a statement.
Republicans nationwide have made a concerted effort to impose conservative beliefs onto public schools.
From laws that limit what teachers can say about gender, sexuality, and race to policies that allow parents to control which books students are allowed to have access to, the GOP is seeking to remake public schools into a right-wing paradise. The impact of laws that censor teachers and remove books from libraries has been felt across the country.
Goodmark said he will ask Cobb County to defend its termination of Rinderle at the hearing.
“Our very first question is ... defend what a divisive concept is and explain why ‘My Shadow Is Purple’ violates it,” Goodmark said.
He says that she has a record of good performance reviews. “She was a leader in the Due West community, somebody who parents wanted to be in the classroom.”
“She has a lot of support in our community,” he added. “We have a lot of parents who are against this. Katie is going to fight for her job.”