EXCLUSIVE: Complaints about Cobb teacher predated book debate, records show

Cobb teacher tells AJC she’s ready ‘to defend my career’
Cobb teacher Katie Rinderle is facing termination after reading students at Due West Elementary School a book about gender identity. Rinderle allegedly violated district rules about teaching controversial issues. (Courtesy of Southern Poverty Law Center/Katie Rinderle)

Credit: Courtesy of Southern Poverty Law Center

Credit: Courtesy of Southern Poverty Law Center

Cobb teacher Katie Rinderle is facing termination after reading students at Due West Elementary School a book about gender identity. Rinderle allegedly violated district rules about teaching controversial issues. (Courtesy of Southern Poverty Law Center/Katie Rinderle)

A Cobb County teacher who is facing termination after reading her class a book that challenges gender norms was previously warned about her choice of reading materials, according to documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Katie Rinderle, a gifted teacher at Due West Elementary School, was put on administrative leave in March after she read her students a book called “My Shadow Is Purple” by Scott Stuart. She’s believed to be the first Georgia teacher to face termination under laws passed by the Georgia Legislature in 2022 aimed at regulating how topics like race are taught in public schools.

A termination hearing is scheduled for Aug. 10.

“I’m ready to go to it, and to continue trying to defend my career,” Rinderle said in an interview with the AJC.

"My Shadow Is Purple," by Scott Stuart, is a children's book that challenges gender norms. A Cobb County elementary school teacher was placed on administrative leave after she read this book to her fifth graders. (Courtesy of Larkin House)

Credit: Larkin House

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Credit: Larkin House

Complaints from March obtained by the AJC via an open records request said that students felt uncomfortable when sitting through the story, which is about a child whose shadow isn’t blue or pink. Rinderle had students use “they/them” pronouns when referring to the main character of the book, school district investigators found.

“This. Is. Unacceptable,” one parent wrote in an email to the school’s principal. “After much consideration and back-and-forth with other concerned parents, (redacted) and I decided that we will not idly sit by as this garbage agenda is being pushed on our child. We are utterly disgusted that this content was taught to fifth grade students at Due West Elementary.”

Through interviews with Rinderle and her students, investigators determined that Rinderle read the book to students during a time when she was required to be teaching math. Rinderle denied the claim.

“I would never not do a part of my job,” Rinderle said in an interview with Cobb investigators, which was recorded and provided to the AJC with her personnel file.

Another sticking point for the district: Rinderle did not admit that the book was about gender identity, maintaining through multiple conversations that the book was about inclusivity.

“We never had a discussion about gender identity,” she said in another interview with investigators. “This was about embracing each other, students reflected on valuing the differences, letting them be unique and having multiple interests. That was the basis of it.”

Rinderle also felt that the book did not violate district rules because it did not discuss race or a divisive concept, she told investigators.

State law and district rules define “divisive concepts” as pertaining to race; “content harmful to minors” as sexual or pornographic; and “controversial issues” as relating to political views.

“Your unwillingness to acknowledge that your conduct was inappropriate and/or the actual topic of this book has further exacerbated the situation, causing the district to lose confidence in your ability to exercise appropriate judgement as a teacher,” stated a letter signed by Superintendent Chris Ragsdale notifying Rinderle of the termination hearing.

Rinderle, who’s been a teacher for 10 years, had only received “sterling” performance reviews prior to reading “My Shadow Is Purple” in class, said her attorney Craig Goodmark. But her 437-page personnel file included complaints from past years that were referenced in the letter Rinderle received.

In 2022, parents complained after Rinderle read students a book written by then-Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams. Rinderle allegedly posted about the book on Instagram and tagged Abrams, which the parents felt was “politically divisive.”

“I take issue with reading a book that is written by a candidate running for political office who is also very divisive,” one parent wrote. “It doesn’t appear that books are being selected from authors with differing political views. Again, the classroom is not the place for this.”

Rinderle’s principal addressed the concern with her at the time and cautioned her against using supplementary materials or teaching lessons that could appear to be “political or controversial,” according to her file. In an interview with district investigators, the school’s principal explained that the book itself was about a spelling bee and did not include any political content, but because of the author could be seen as controversial. Rinderle did not face any disciplinary action at the time.

“We never had any more discussion about that,” Rinderle told the AJC. “My evaluations never had reflected any performance issues or concerns.”

The letter goes on to reference “multiple complaints” about Rinderle’s interaction with students — which she said is “absurd.”

Rinderle was not told how she violated state law, Goodmark told the AJC last month. A summary of findings and notice of charges stated Rinderle had violated the district’s rules about controversial issues, the parents’ bill of rights, the selection of instructional resources and the employee ethics policy.