The battle over books in Cobb County Schools

People waving signs protesting the banning of books by the Cobb County School DistrictRally against book banning by the Cobb County School District (Photo: Rebecca Gaunt)

by Rebecca Gaunt

About a dozen people stood outside Lassiter High School Friday morning in response to the district’s recent decision to pull two books from libraries across the district.

A similar protest took place last week at Walton High School.

Katie Rinderle and Shannon Deisen hold signs in front of Lassiter High (Photo: Rebecca Gaunt)

Katie Rinderle, the teacher fired last month for doing a lesson based on the picture book “My Shadow is Purple” by Australian author Scott Stuart, joined the group holding a sign that said, “Moms Unite Against Book Bans.” As she and her attorney are still considering future legal action, she decided not to speak on the record.

Her friend, Laura Oldknow, a retired Cobb elementary school teacher who taught for 30 years, also attended.

“Before I left–I’ve been retired 10 years–none of this was going on. But I can see how it was coming in a lot of ways because I felt like my creativity and my ability to make my own decisions and say and do the right things was being taken away, like they wanted robots as teachers,” she said.

 Lukas Deisen and Melissa Marten wave the Read Banned Books banner (Photo: Rebecca Gaunt)

Parent Melissa Marten organized the event.

“It’s very important to me to show support to our teachers, media specialists, and students that we are going to consistently support them and their freedom to have access to diverse books. We will not stop until the school district realizes how important it is to have diversity and representation,” she told the Courier.

Jennifer Susko, a school counselor formerly employed in Cobb County Schools, took aim at John Floresta, the district’s chief strategy and accountability officer, and his role in the books’ removal with a sign that said, “Floresta is a failure.”

 Lukas Deisen waved the American flag at passing cars (Photo: Rebecca Gaunt)

The protest took place during morning drop off along Shallowford Road. The group received multiple honks of support and thumbs up from passing cars. Two students tried to join the protest but were gently reminded by a passing teacher that it was time to go to class. 

One man exiting the school’s campus rolled down his car window to yell a slur at the group.

In the debate over “divisive concepts” and the state laws passed in 2022 to ban teaching them in Georgia schools, Rinderle’s termination was divisive in and of itself. Not only have parents racked up hundreds of comments on the topic in school-related Facebook groups, the school board split 4-3 along party lines in the decision to uphold Superintendent Chris Ragsdale’s decision to fire her. 

Days earlier, a tribunal of three retired educators selected by the district, recommended reinstatement

Parent Russell Sauve said he was “really disappointed Cobb didn’t follow its own policies and allowed a random person to have books banned from our schools.” (Photo: Rebecca Gaunt)

Last month, the district pulled “Flamer” by Mike Curato and “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” by Jesse Evans from middle and high school libraries due to what it called sexually explicit content in an email that went out to parents. 

New York-based Libs of Tik Tok, the handle for several extreme right-wing social media accounts, started by Chaya Raichik, took credit for the removals on its website.

It posted emails between “David” writing on behalf of LOTT and Floresta, that showed the district removed the books within two days of David asking the district why it had “pornographic” material available for students.

The move violated the district’s own policy for responding to “harmful materials” complaints put in place as a result of state law.

The fallout continued as Cobb’s steering committee for the Helen Ruffin Reading Bowl announced that they were pulling out over concerns their jobs were at stake if any of the books selected for the statewide competition drew complaints. 

Cobb County Association of Educators President Jeff Hubbard said he reached out to the district on Aug. 7 requesting assurances for the volunteer teachers and media specialists who run the reading bowl, while Rinderle’s case was still pending. He asked that they be promised they would not face repercussions over any books used. He said he received a one-line response and no assurances were given.

Over the past week, parents have reported the book fairs at their schools being placed “on hold.”

Hubbard confirmed that some media specialists have made this decision until given more direction by the county. The book that triggered parent complaints and ultimately led to Rinderle’s firing was purchased at the school book fair.

Cobb parent and author Colleen Oakley tweeted that her son’s book fair was “postponed indefinitely.”

“In our elementary school it’s about $2k-$4k per book fair and we do two, and our media specialist is already wondering how she’s going to make up those funds,” she wrote.

The district has not responded to questions about the postponements of the book fairs.

Backlash from the public over the reading bowl cancellation was swift. The district denied its cancellation, however Hubbard confirmed the volunteers were calling off their participation.

“You can’t have a reading bowl without [them],” he said.

Hubbard shared an email that went out Thursday from Catherine Mallanda, Cobb County School District’s chief academic officer to principals indicating a reading bowl of some sort is back on. Attached is a parent permission packet with book summaries.

“Media specialists are being ‘highly encouraged’ to again serve as coaches. What is not stated is the actual entity putting on the bowl. It appears the bowl will be conducted by CCSD. It does appear that CCSD may have actually vetted the books if they are including summaries,” Hubbard wrote in an email to the Courier. 

He continued:

“What is not stated from my original email is whether all media specialists/teachers who choose to participate will be protected by the county from any complaints from parents regarding the content of the books. As a reminder, these books had already been purchased in preparation for this year’s competition and are in each school’s library collection.

“Therefore, any parent could still make a complaint.

“The sad thing is if the county had addressed CCAE’s concerns when raised on August 7 to create a win-win for everyone involved regarding the books in question, our professional’s jobs and health, and children excited to celebrate the love of reading; rather, actions involving improper use of CCSD policies and rules created fear and intimidation within our dedicated staff of media specialists throughout the system.

“We do hope the system will ensure full job protections for those employees wishing to participate this year and will take public action to announce that all HRRB books for 2023-24 have been properly vetted and are fully approved for our student readers.”

Rebecca Gaunt earned a degree in journalism from the University of Georgia and a master’s degree in education from Oglethorpe University. After teaching elementary school for several years, she returned to writing. She lives in Marietta with her husband, son, two cats, and a dog. In her spare time, she loves to read, binge Netflix and travel.