Firing of Cobb teacher over book doesn’t end controversy

Appeal, chilling effect on Georgia teachers likely in the coming weeks
Cobb teacher Katie Rinderle (facing camera) hugs a supporter after the Cobb County school board voted to fire her during a meeting in Marietta on Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023. Rinderle read a book that challenged gender norms to fifth grade students. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Cobb teacher Katie Rinderle (facing camera) hugs a supporter after the Cobb County school board voted to fire her during a meeting in Marietta on Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023. Rinderle read a book that challenged gender norms to fifth grade students. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

The Cobb County Board of Education voted Thursday evening to fire a teacher for reading a controversial book to fifth graders — but that’s not where the story ends.

Katie Rinderle is believed to be the first teacher in the state to face consequences under censorship laws passed by the Legislature in 2022. While district officials said in a statement they’re “pleased that this difficult issue has concluded,” she’s now able to appeal the local board’s decision to the Georgia Board of Education, and her attorneys said they’re exploring all possible legal avenues forward.

“This is not the end of this case,” said Mike Tafelski, a senior attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, in a news release. “This is the beginning.”

Although many in Cobb, including some teachers, feel the board’s decision was justified, it sounded like a warning shot to some Georgia educators.

Rinderle was removed from her classroom at Due West Elementary School in March after reading “My Shadow is Purple” by Scott Stuart, a book that challenges gender norms. Parents complained that the content was inappropriate and they weren’t given a chance to opt out.

At a two-day hearing earlier this month about whether Rinderle should lose her job, attorneys for the district argued that the veteran teacher was insubordinate and knowingly violating the policies; Rinderle’s attorneys argued the policies are too vague for her to know the book was controversial. This week, a three-person tribunal acknowledged that Rinderle had broken some of the district’s rules, but recommended she keep her job. But the final decision belonged to the school board, and in a split vote along party lines, the four Republicans on the board voted to fire her.

Dozens of teachers messaged Cobb County Association of Educators President Jeff Hubbard in the hours after the board’s vote, he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. They asked what to do with their own classroom libraries — where they once saw books, some now see potential controversial issues that could land them in front of a tribunal.

“I had a third grade teacher who sent me a message and she said, ‘Jeff, this was a punch in the gut. This tells us that anything can happen to anyone, at any time,’” he said. “You tick off the wrong person who’s got a singular agenda on one thing, and you have people who will run with it — you better watch out.”

It’s part of why Kim Carlton, who taught middle schoolers in Cobb, said she retired in the summer of 2022. In an interview with the AJC, she said that teachers are walking on eggshells now.

“It puts teachers on notice: Don’t step out of line, don’t say the wrong thing,” she said. “And I think it’s going to be a far-reaching consequence, not only in Cobb but throughout the state and probably throughout much of the nation, unfortunately. And the kids are going to be the true losers.”

A supporter of Cobb County teacher Katie Rinderle walks out of a hearing at the Cobb County Board of Education in Marietta on Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023. Rinderle was fired after reading “My Shadow is Purple,” a book about gender identity, to fifth graders. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

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Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

But as some mourn the board’s decision, others in the community celebrate.

Most of the more than two dozen speakers at the Thursday meeting were in favor of Rinderle’s termination. They asked the board to fight for parents’ rights, to uphold family values and to stick to “reading, writing and arithmetic” in schools.

“I’m very concerned about the prospect of radical, unrealistic ideals being introduced to children without parental consent,” said Nathaniel Darnell, a Republican leader in Cobb County. He and his wife, Abigail, who also addressed the board, suggested the school system could face legal action if they opted not to fire Rinderle.

Cobb officials argued that firing Rinderle was a way to keep the classroom a neutral place for learning. But opponents say that the move does the opposite.

“It is one of the first incidents of this that we know, but I can tell you it’s not the only thing that’s happening in Georgia,” Craig Goodmark, one of Rinderle’s attorneys, told reporters Thursday. “The trio of censorship laws that was passed by the Legislature has teachers in fear for their jobs. They don’t know what they can say and what they can’t say. And so I expect that we’ll see more of this, unfortunately.”

Board Chair Brad Wheeler, a Republican, said he followed district policy and state law voted to “keep our classes safe and focused on academics.” Becky Sayler, one of the Democratic Cobb school board members who voted against firing Rinderle, wondered if it’s time for the board to revisit its own policies to be clearer about what is and isn’t acceptable.

“Elections have consequences. This is an example of how both state law and the makeup of the board has real-time consequences for our teachers and students,” Sayler told the AJC. “If the chill effect of this (decision) is less books in our kids’ hands, that’s a net loss.”

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