The Cobb County School Board in Georgia voted 4-3 on Thursday evening to officially terminate a fifth-grade teacher who was suspended for reading a book about gender identity to her students last school year.
Katie Rinderle, a fifth-grade teacher at Due West Elementary School in Marietta was fired in June after reading a book to her class. Even though Rinderle had purchased “My Shadow Is Purple” by Scott Stuart at a school book fair, a parent complaint spurred a monthslong investigation that determined reading the book violated Georgia’s “divisive concepts” law. Rinderle had excellent performance reviews, according to her lawyer, but the school administrators terminated her regardless.
The law, signed by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp in 2022, prohibits educators from teaching about “divisive concepts,” including that the United States is fundamentally racist. (It does, however, have a special carveout that allows educators to respond “in an objective manner and without endorsement to questions regarding specific divisive concepts raised by students.”) The law does not mention discussions or instructions related to gender.
As soon as it was enacted, educators complained that the law was vague and would be difficult to follow.
Rinderle’s firing and subsequent hearing are among the latest flashpoints in a sprawling culture war. Across the country, conservative activists and elected officials have set their sights on what books are allowed in classrooms and libraries.
Conservative parents have smeared teachers as abusers or accused them of indoctrinating their children for introducing their kids to books about gender identity or racial justice. In turn, GOP legislators have passed laws that restrict what teachers can say in the classroom and which books may be used for instruction, all under the guise of protecting children. In practice, these policies, which are often vaguely worded, have forced teachers to censor themselves and for books to be banned.
Rinderle has maintained that she didn’t break any laws by reading the book and that the school had not explained which part of the “divisive concepts” law she had violated. Georgia law requires school districts to set a date for a hearing after termination of a teacher.
Last week, a three-person tribunal held a two-day hearing in order to make a non-binding recommendation on whether Rinderle’s termination should be upheld. At the time of termination, Rinderle was charged with insubordination and willful neglect of duties, and “other good and sufficient cause.”
At the hearing, Rinderle maintained that the book was appropriate for her class. “This was about inclusivity, balance, acceptance and being true to yourself,” she said.
Cissi Kale, the principal of Due West, said Rinderle’s defense of the book meant she could not be an effective teacher. “I think it would be very hard to coach her going forward on this issue because she hasn’t acknowledged that the book was controversial. So, I can’t be sure that she wouldn’t read another book of the same nature,” she said.
The district’s assistant superintendent, Gretchen Walton, echoed Kale.
“We are concerned she chose to put a book about gender identity in a class of 10- and 11-year-olds,” Walton said.
A parent spoke in support of Rinderle, saying she wants her daughter to read diverse books like “My Shadow Is Purple.”
On Monday, the tribunal had ruled that Rinderle did not violate insubordination rules and should be able to keep her job. They did, however, contend that she violated the district’s policies on books allowed in the classroom and by not allowing parents to opt out of the lesson.
“The district has never provided adequate guidance on how I am supposed to know what is and what is not allowed in the classroom based on these vague policies,” Rinderle said in a statement after the hearing. “Prioritizing behaviors and attitudes rooted in bigotry and discrimination does not benefit students and undermines the quality of education and the duty of educators.”
But despite the tribunal’s recommendation, the school board still opted to fire Rinderle, sending a chilling message to teachers in Georgia.