MARIETTA, Georgia (AP) — A Georgia public school teacher took a stand Thursday, trying to reverse her firing after officials said she unlawfully read a book about gender fluctuation to her fifth graders.
Katie Rinderle had been a teacher for 10 years when she got into trouble in March for reading the picture book My Shadow Is Purple at Due West Elementary School in Cobb County, a suburb of Atlanta.
The case has garnered widespread attention as it is a test of what public school teachers can teach in the classroom, how much control a school system can have on teachers, and whether parents can veto classes they don’t like. It comes amid a nationwide conservative backlash Books and lessons on LGBTQ+ issues at school.
“This termination has nothing to do with education,” argued Craig Goodmark, the attorney defending Rinderle, on Thursday. “It consists of creating political scapegoats for the elected leadership of this district. Reading a children’s book to children is not against the law.”
Officials in Cobb County, Georgia’s second-largest school district, allege Rinderle broke school district rules prohibiting classes on controversial subjects, and fired her after parents complained.
“Introducing the issue of gender identity and gender fluctuation in a class of elementary school students was inappropriate and against district policy,” argued Sherry Culves, a district attorney, Thursday.
Rinderle countered that reading the book was not wrong and testified that she thought it was “appropriate” and not a “sensitive issue.” She argued Thursday that the book conveys a broader message for gifted students by “talking about their diverse interests and the feeling that they should be able to choose any of their interests and explore all of their interests.”
Cobb County enacted a rule in 2022 banning classes on controversial topics, after the Georgia legislature decided to do so Laws were passed earlier in the year Ban on teaching “divisive concepts” and create a parent rights charter. Although the Divisive Concepts Act applies to teaching about race, it prohibits teachers from “holding personal political beliefs.” The Bill of Rights guarantees that parents “have the right to direct the upbringing and moral or religious upbringing of their minor child.”
“The Cobb County School District places a strong emphasis on the classroom being a neutral place of learning for students,” Culves said. “One-sided teaching of political, religious or social beliefs does not belong in our lessons.”
Goodmark argued that a ban on “controversial subjects” was so vague that teachers could never be sure what was banned and said the case should be dismissed.
The hearing took place under a Georgian law protecting teachers from unfair dismissal. A panel of three retired principals will make a recommendation on whether to fire or keep Rinderle, but the final decision will rest with the 106,000-student district’s school board. Rinderle could appeal any dismissal to the state board of education and eventually to court.
Culves called Rinderle as the county’s first witness, trying to establish that Rinderle was evasive and uncooperative. Cobb County says it wants to fire Rinderle in part because the administration deems her “untrainable.”
“The school district has lost confidence in her, and that’s partly because she refuses to understand and acknowledge what she’s done,” Culves said. She also cited Rinderle’s failure to take responsibility for her actions and to apologize to parents and the principal as other reasons for the district’s loss of trust.
When questioned by Culves, Rinderle repeatedly said she did not know what the parents believed or what subjects might be considered offensive.
“Can you understand why a family would want the opportunity to discuss gender identity, gender fluctuation, or gender beyond binary with their children at home before it is introduced by a public school teacher?” Culves once asked.
Culves argued that county guidelines meant that Rinderle should have gotten her principal to pre-approve the book and given parents the option to deregister their children. Rinderle said the students voted for her to read the book she bought at the school’s book fair and that it’s not common to get picture books approved.
County officials argued that Rinderle should have known books were a sensitive area after parents previously complained when she read “Stacey’s Extraordinary Words,” a picture book about a spelling bee by Stacey Abrams, then a Democrat running for governor from Georgia ran. But Rinderle said her principal read the book, told her “there was nothing wrong with it” and that she would look into any complaints.