Lawsuit accuses Cobb County School District of violating teachers’ Constitutional rights

A gold set of the scales of justice

by Rebecca Gaunt

The Georgia Association of Educators (GAE) joined a fired elementary school teacher and a currently-employed special education teacher in filing a federal lawsuit Tuesday against the Cobb County School District over its “vague” policies created after the Georgia legislature passed the ‘divisive concepts’ law in 2022.

The complaint alleges that the district engages in “arbitrary, discriminatory, and retaliatory enforcement against educators, like Plaintiffs, who support LGBTQ students.” Additionally, it claims the district’s policy training is inadequate, and that CCSD has created a hostile environment for LGBTQ students and teachers who provide safe and inclusive environments.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, names Superintendent Chris Ragsdale, all seven school board members, and the head of employee relations, Chris Dowd, as defendants.

From the news release:

The complaint describes how the district’s policies on “controversial issues” have been used to unlawfully discipline educators for mentioning LGBTQ+ and gender-nonconforming people and their experiences in the classroom, in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th  Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

“The school board’s decision to fire me undermines students’ freedom to learn and teachers’ ability to teach,” (Katie) Rinderle said. “Many CCSD educators, including Ms. Grimmke and I, are committed to creating inclusive, diverse and empowering environments free from discrimination and harm, ensuring LGBTQ+ students feel safe, affirmed, and centered in their learning journey because that is what our children deserve.”

The complaint also states that Rinderle’s termination is illegal retaliation in violation of Title IX – the civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in schools.

The board majority, which consists of Republicans Randy Scamihorn, Brad Wheeler, David Banks, and David Chastain, voted to uphold the superintendent’s decision to fire Rinderle last year, in spite of a district-appointed tribunal recommending reinstatement.

The Democratic minority members Becky Sayler, Leroy Tre’ Hutchin, and Nichelle Davis opposed that decision.

Katie Rinderle was fired from her position at Due West Elementary School for doing a lesson with the gender-themed picture book “My Shadow is Purple,” which she purchased at her school’s Scholastic book fair, after parents complained.

The complaint alleges that the district didn’t follow its progressive discipline policy when it moved immediately to termination. The district and board members also made “several false public comments attacking Rinderle’s employment history and performance” though Rinderle had received positive evaluations from her principal.

A December article published by the Courier uncovering the link between three central office employees and an allegedly anti-LGBTQ hate group is also referenced in the document. Those employees work in the media department, which was in charge of drafting comments and releases about Rinderle’s termination. The district has yet to address the affiliation between members of the communications and accountability team and Gary DeMar, president of American Vision.

During Rinderle’s tribunal hearing, her attorney, Craig Goodmark, questioned whether Dowd was biased against LGBTQ people given his history as a member of the Atlanta Police Department’s controversial Red Dog Unit and accusations that he used racial slurs during a raid on an Atlanta gay bar in 2009. The botched operation ultimately cost the city over $1 million in a lawsuit settlement and the unit was disbanded.

The lawsuit alleges Dowd’s “supervision of the investigation resulted in material  witnesses not being interviewed, false claims of dishonesty being raised, and inaccurate reporting of Rinderle’s conduct.”

It also states that while the white parents who complained were interviewed as part of the investigation, two Black parents who wrote emails in support of Rinderle, were not contacted in a meaningful manner. 

Rinderle is seeking financial damages, as well as reinstatement and the clearing of her record. All the defendants are seeking injunctive relief against the district’s enforcement of its policies.

Tonya Grimmke is a special education teacher and has worked for Cobb for 18 years. According to the complaint, her child attended Cobb schools and identifies as LGBTQ. Grimmke fears retaliatory disciplinary action for intervening in bullying and harassment of LGBTQ students.

Rinderle and Grimmke are members of the Georgia Association of Educators (GAE) and are represented by attorneys from the Goodmark Law Firm, the Law Offices of Gerry Weber, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the National Education Association (NEA) and the Southern Education Foundation (SEF).

Read the document in full here.

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.