Interview with Cobb teacher fired over book under Georgia’s ‘divisive concepts’ law

Katie Rinderle sittingKatie Rinderle discussing her termination by Cobb schools in a video put out by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

By Rebecca Gaunt

Katie Rinderle is the first known case of a teacher being fired as a result of Georgia House Bill 1084 which passed in 2022.

A picture book Rinderle purchased at the school’s own book fair, “My Shadow is Purple,” is what landed her in hot water with the Cobb County School District.

Rinderle and her attorney Craig Goodmark spoke with the Courier Wednesday by phone.

The Republican-backed HB 1084 is officially known as the Protect Students First Act, but commonly referred to as the divisive concepts law.

According to the law, teachers cannot espouse views regarding certain concepts “to persuade or indoctrinate a student, school community member, or other school personnel…”

Specific concepts listed in the bill as divisive include teaching that one race is superior to another, that the United States of America is fundamentally racist, and that an individual, by virtue of race, is inherently or consciously racist or oppressive toward others. 

Critics of the bill say they are concerned it’s too vague and creates a chilling effect in the classroom.

Rinderle has taught in Cobb for 10 years and at Due West Elementary since 2018. After she read the book to her fifth grade class, the students wrote poems about their shadows. The parent of one of her students, also a teacher at a Cobb middle school, complained. Rinderle was summoned to the principal’s office. She was later asked to resign but refused. The district issued an official notice of termination on June 6.

She is now working with her attorney and the Georgia Association of Educators (GAE) to defend her job.

Courier: Are you aware of any other parents complaining about the book?

Goodmark: Nobody has come directly to Katie. Once the district conducted an investigation, it’s part of their position that there are other parents complaining, but nobody complained to Katie.

Courier: Did CCSD or your school provide any training or directives to teachers to make sure there was understanding and compliance with the new laws?

Rinderle: They had a slide-I think one or two slides at the beginning of the year that addressed sticking to CTLS [Cobb Teaching and Learning System] and looking at divisiveness as basically-as race. Sticking to the curriculum. It was very fast and not a very well explained slide. It might have had a 30-second attention to that. That’s all I’m aware of.

Courier: The back cover of the book acknowledges the topic of being nonbinary, but the story  itself doesn’t explicitly address being nonbinary or trans. Was that explicitly addressed in the lesson?

Rinderle: The lesson was about embracing yourself and the differences in each other and having confidence. Looking at our unique differences. That different students have many interests and sometimes struggle to fit in with the rest of the school population. So, you know, really paying attention to embracing the differences in each other and then valuing ourselves to be confident in who we are.

Courier: So there was no explicit discussion of those issues?

Rinderle: I’m not sure what you’re saying, but no, it was about acceptance and embracing the differences in each other.

Courier: Did the book raise any flags for you as being potentially controversial when you first found it?

Rinderle: No, not at all. I found it at our school’s book fair and I read it there. I thought that it was a great book and I thought it had a wonderful message. My students felt the same way. I still believe it’s a wonderful book.

Courier: After the parent complained, did the principal or anyone else address the fact that the source of the book being the school’s book fair might be confusing for teachers?

Rinderle: They would not really address that.

Courier: And you’ve still not gotten any specific direction on what made this book a problem?

Rinderle: Yeah no. Even when I did ask a few times throughout meeting with the district and my principal. Chris Dowd [executive director of employee relations and evaluations] actually told me it wasn’t my place to ask questions at one point. So they would not answer that for me.

Courier: Your principal previously gave you excellent reviews. Did you have any support from her or any other administrators throughout this that spoke up on your behalf?

Rinderle: I didn’t talk to anyone from my school or my community and my principal even shared her own opinion that if I had read this to her son when he was in elementary school that she would have had a problem with it.

Courier: You’ve probably seen the district’s statement. They declined to get into specifics, but it says “this action is appropriate considering the entirety of the teacher’s behavior and history.” Do you want to respond to that?

Rinderle: I think my evaluations speak for themselves. I have nothing but, for over 10 years, exemplary evaluations. I’m a leader in my school and a leader in the district. I think that says what I need to say.

Courier: The author put out a statement in support of you. Have you heard from him or had a chance to speak directly?

Rinderle: I saw that. That’s incredible. He expresses sympathy for me and says that I had the right message, and he clarified that was the message of the book.

Courier: How did the students react to the book and tell me about the poems they wrote?

Rinderle: They did a great job with their poems. They loved the book. They found value in having a community of people supporting you and also finding your own confidence in yourself. Their poems were all very different, but generally there was a connection to their personal understanding and whatever they wanted to say. Usually sketchbooks give students an opportunity to share their own thoughts or whatever the students thought were reflective of them.

Courier: So by fighting this what is your ultimate goal? What do you hope will come from taking this on?

Goodmark: Just to be clear, Katie is defending her job. She’s not fighting, she’s defending. Had Cobb County not moved to terminate her, she would have been in the classroom enjoying the rest of that school year. Katie is still fighting for her job. But also, in doing that, exposing what is a concern all over Georgia–which is these laws are acting to censor teachers, to eliminate important debate on important subjects that students need to understand their world. That’s Katie’s job. She’s been doing that job for 10 years and she’ll either do it in Cobb or she’ll do it someplace else in Georgia because Katie is an exemplary educator. She is somebody that we should want in our public school classrooms. But for Cobb playing politics with somebody’s job, she’d still be there.

Courier: Ultimately are you hoping to return to teach in Cobb?

Rinderle: I never should have been fired or recommended for termination, but just like Craig said, I’m not as concerned about my position in the district as I am about the lasting impact of these state laws and politics have on students and other educators. Cobb has made it clear that it would not be good for me if I were to come back. They don’t want me so I don’t think that’s a good environment to work in, and I think that I love teaching, but I’m not very concerned about my position as I am with the impact of this.

The district sent the following statement to the Courier regarding Rinderle’s termination:

“Without getting into specifics of the personnel investigation, the District is confident that this action is appropriate considering the entirety of the teacher’s behavior and history. However, as this matter is ongoing, further comment is unavailable. The District remains committed to strictly enforcing all Board policy, and the law.”

Rinderle’s attorney told the Courier, “They state their clear intention on terminating Katie for teaching this book, and any other reason that they give to us is pretextual, meaning that’s not true, and we’ll defend our jobs, but like Katie said, we’re also very concerned about the way these laws are impacting educators all over Georgia.”

The Australian author of the book, Scott Stuart, addressed the news of Rinderle’s termination on his Tik Tok account, saying, “This whole thing just really goes to show you how much more interested the school system in the U.S. is in playing politics than they are in educating kids.”

Stuart also posted a video of himself reading the book last year.

A hearing regarding Rinderle’s termination will take place in August. 

Last year, Gov. Brian Kemp also signed HB 1178, the Parents’ Bill of Rights, designed to give parents more say in their children’s education, and SB 226 to change the process for submitting complaints and requesting the removal of books from schools.