News (USA)

Teacher sues school district after she was fired for reading a book about accepting others

Katherine Rinderle
Katherine Rinderle Photo: Southern Poverty Law Center screenshot

A fifth grade teacher is suing the Georgia school district that fired her for reading a “divisive” picture book to her class.

Last August, Katherine Rinderle was fired by the Cobb County School District (CCSD) after a parent complained that she read the book My Shadow is Purple to her fifth grade class at Due West Elementary School the previous March. The book, which Rinderle reportedly purchased at the school’s Scholastic book fair, is written from the perspective of a child who does not conform to gender stereotypes and is about acceptance.

The district said that Rinderle had violated its policies prohibiting teachers from discussing “controversial issues” and from “improperly infringing on parents’ rights to direct the upbringing and moral or religious training of their children.” CCSD adopted the policies in 2022, after Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) signed a trio of laws censoring discussions around race, gender, and sexual orientation in the classroom.

But according to the lawsuit, filed Tuesday, CCSD’s policies do not expressly prohibit discussions of gender identity, gender conformity or nonconformity, or sexual orientation, and do not define terms like “controversial issues.”

Rinderle is joined in the suit by a current CCSD teacher, Tonya Grimmke, and the Georgia Association of Educators (GAE).

“CCSD’s vague censorship policies enable arbitrary, discriminatory, and retaliatory enforcement against educators, like Plaintiffs, who support LGBTQ students,” the lawsuit states. “These opaque policies were used to terminate Rinderle, and pose a continuing threat to other teachers in the school district, including Grimmke and GAE members, and harm Cobb County students’ ability to learn in safe and inclusive classrooms.”

The suit alleges that CCSD’s policies violate the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, and that Rinderle’s termination constituted illegal retaliation in violation of Title IX. Rinderle is seeking damages as well as full reinstatement at Due West Elementary School.

“The school board’s decision to fire me undermines students’ freedom to learn and teachers’ ability to teach,” Rinderle said in a press release. “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.”

While the lawsuit does not challenge the three Georgia censorship laws, it does seek an injunction blocking CCSD from enforcing its censorship policies.

The suit also alleges a history of anti-LGBTQ+ hostility at CCSD. It notes that three members of the district’s executive cabinet and central office have been affiliated with Gary DeMar, leader of anti-LGBTQ+ group American Vision, who has called for the death penalty for LGBTQ+ people. It also alleges that CCSD teachers and administrators have intentionally deadnamed gender nonconforming students over the past five years.

One defendant named in the suit, former Atlanta Police Department officer and current CCSD executive director for employee relations Christopher Dowd, was found in a separate civil lawsuit to have acted unlawfully for his participation in a 2009 APD raid on an Atlanta gay bar.

“Dowd oversaw and engineered a flawed and misleading investigation of Rinderle’s conduct, which ultimately resulted in her termination for advocating and supporting gender nonconforming and LGBTQ students,” Tuesday’s lawsuit alleges.

“The district’s vague and discriminatory censorship policies are rooted in bigotry and have no place in our schools,” SPLC senior supervising attorney Mike Tafelski said in a statement. “We will continue to hold the district accountable for its ongoing unlawful conduct which harms our students, teachers and community.”

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