Georgia Board upholds firing of Cobb County teacher over children's book

The Georgia School Board of Education has upheld the firing of Katie Rinderle, a former elementary teacher who read a book on gender fluidity to her fifth-grade class.

In a meeting on Thursday, the state board unanimously upheld Rinderle's termination by the Cobb County School Board without any discussion.

Rinderle made headlines when the school board voted 4-3 to fire her in August 2023 for reading "My Shadow is Purple," to her class at Due West Elementary School. The picture book, written by Scott Stuart, discusses gender fluidity. During her termination hearing, school district lawyer Sherry Culves said discussing gender identity and gender fluidity was inappropriate.

The Cobb County's board decision overrode the recommendation of a panel of three retired educators. The panel found after a two-day hearing that Rinderle had violated district policies, but said she should not be fired.

Katie Rinderle shows a copy of "My Shadow is Purple" (Credit: Southern Poverty Law Center)

Rinderle had been a teacher for 10 years when she got into trouble in March for reading the picture book "My Shadow Is Purple" by Scott Stuart at Due West Elementary School, after which some parents complained.

MORE: Cobb County educators sue school district citing sex discrimination, wrongful termination

During the hearing, Rinderle said, out of several options, her students chose to read the book which she picked up at a recent book fair at the school.

The case has drawn wide attention as a test of what public school teachers can teach in class, how much a school system can control teachers and whether parents can veto instruction they dislike. It comes amid a nationwide conservative backlash to books and teaching about LGBTQ+ subjects in school.

"The board’s decision to fire me undermines students’ freedom to learn," Rinderle said in a statement when announcing that she would appeal to the State Board of Education. "I am appealing this decision because I oppose censorship, discrimination and harm to students in any form. I’m committed to creating inclusive, diverse and empowering environments that center students in their learning journey."

Cobb County Schools release statement on teacher firing

Cobb County adopted a rule barring teaching on controversial issues in 2022, after Georgia lawmakers earlier that year enacted laws barring the teaching of "divisive concepts" and creating a parents’ bill of rights. The divisive concepts law, although it addresses teaching on race, bars teachers from "espousing personal political beliefs." The bill of rights guarantees that parents have "the right to direct the upbringing and the moral or religious training of his or her minor child."

Cobb County Schools released the following statement: 

"As we have previously said, we are confident in the process that led to the difficult decision to part ways with one of our staff members. We are grateful that the State Board of Education took the opportunity to review the situation in detail and, having studied all the available material, confirmed our district’s actions. We will continue to put the safety and education of our students ahead of all other considerations."

Katie Rinderle's attorney, teachers union reacts to board's decision

"This is just a validation of a position taken by Cobb County by the State Board of Education that censorship is okay and vague policies that subject teachers to termination are going to stay on the books. That's bad. That's bad for Georgia, bad for teachers, and most importantly the kids that go to our public schools," said attorney Craig Goodmark, who represents Rinderle. 

Katie Rinderle

Goodmark says he wasn't surprised by the decision. That's why he's already filed a federal lawsuit asking a judge to evaluate whether those policies are vague and unconstitutional.

"We believe that justice still has not been served in Katie's case, and we're concerned about other teachers in Cobb County and teachers around the state," said Goodmark. 

The President of Cobb County Association of Educators, Jeff Hubbard, says the language of the law is vague and teachers don't know what they can safely say in the classroom.

"You've had huge dialing back of what is taught and how it is taught.  The most frightening part of this is that we are taking away the teacher's ability to allow for critical thinking and allow for creative thinking from students," said Hubbard. 

Rinderle has 30 days to decide if she wants to appeal the State Board of Education's decision to the Cobb County Superior Court. 

As part of that federal lawsuit, Rinderle is asking the federal court to reverse the decision of the Cobb School Board, and now the State School Board of Education, so she can get her job back.

Rinderle is believed to be the first public school teacher in Georgia to be fired because of the laws.

Rinderle and Tonya Grimmke, a current teacher in the Cobb County School System, filed a federal lawsuit against the district earlier in February, arguing that the policy on "controversial issues" is a violation of the Equal Protection Clause in the 14th Amendment. Rinderle is seeking damages and her job back.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.