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Georgia school district intends to fire teacher after she read book about gender identity to fifth grade class, document shows

By Maxime Tamsett, Alta Spells, Carrington Peavy and Dawn Sawyer, CNN

(CNN) — A Georgia teacher is facing termination after reading a book about gender identity – which some parents complained was controversial – to her fifth grade class.

Cobb County School District (CCSD) informed the teacher, Katherine Rinderle, that it “intends to terminate” her employment at Due West Elementary School after she read the book “My Shadow is Purple” to her students, according to a charge letter from the school district reviewed by CNN. The school district told Rinderle that she was being fired “on the grounds of insubordination, willful neglect of duties and any other good and sufficient cause.”

In the charge letter, CCSD claimed Rinderle violated at least six district policies and administrative rules, which include two polices based on Georgia laws passed last year – one that restricts instruction of “divisive concepts” and another that provides greater transparency to parents and legal guardians regarding what their children are being taught.

Rinderle said the school district has not told her what “divisive” means.

“They actually said that it was intentionally written in a way that left room for it to be covered in various ways. So no, it has never been answered to me,” Rinderle said.

The lesson was brought to the school district’s attention after several parents complained that Rinderle had introduced “a controversial subject (gender identity/fluidity) that is not an appropriate school topic for ten and eleven-year-old students” in class, according to the document.

Rinderle told CNN that after reading and buying the book from a Scholastic Book Fair held at the school in February, she presented the book to her students who chose the title out of a selection of books she presented to the class.

“I read it and I just knew that it had a great message. I really resonated with its message of acceptance of oneself and others, and every book I had in my classroom is one of acceptance,” Rinderle said. “I knew that this book would fit perfectly in my classroom.”

Craig Goodmark, a lawyer representing Rinderle, told CNN he and his client believe the book was neither inappropriate, controversial or divisive, and disagreed with the school district’s position.

Written by Scott Stuart, “My Shadow is Purple” describes itself as “a heartwarming and inspiring book about being true to yourself.” According to a description of the book by publisher Larrikin House, “This story considers gender beyond binary in a vibrant spectrum of colour.” The book was nominated for a 2023 Australian Book Industry Award.

After reading it to the class, Rinderle said students “discussed the overall message of acceptance,” and then did “a self-reflective piece with their connections to their gifted side or whatever it may be through their shadow poem.”

CCSD claimed Rinderle “implemented this lesson without informing administration or families ahead of time or providing families an opportunity to opt out of the lesson or address the topic with their children first,” according to the document.

Rinderle, who has been teaching in Cobb County for 10 years, told CNN that, with the exception of sexual education classes, teachers are not required to obtain parent pre-approval of lesson topics before they are taught to students.

When asked if the district has a required approval process for clearing books used by teachers in the classroom, Rinderle said there was not. Teachers use their professional judgment to review books before placing them in their classrooms, she said.

CNN reached out to the principal of the school for comment but has not heard back.

Rinderle explained she was placed on administrative leave less than a week after she read the book to students on March 8.

The teacher said she was initially called into the principal’s office to discuss an email complaint from a parent who “thought that this book was inappropriate.” Several days later, she met with an investigator from the school district.

By the following Monday, Rinderle said that she had been placed on administrative leave. By May 5, the district told her she had the option to resign or “they would move forward with the recommendation for termination.”

After she refused to resign, Rinderle told CNN she received a charge letter dated June 6, in which the district notified her of its intention to fire her.

The district alleged that students reported that Rinderle taught this lesson during a time designated for math instruction and claimed that the teacher denied doing so. According to the letter, when asked to provide evidence, Rinderle was not able to produce any showing that she had “instructed students in math intervention on this date.”

The teacher was also accused of failing to acknowledge that reading the book to fifth graders in a public elementary school was “inappropriate,” as well as failing to acknowledge that the book dealt with gender identity, the district’s letter said.

According to the charge letter, Rinderle was previously cautioned about her selection of another book. In January 2022, she read the children’s book “Stacey’s Extraordinary Words” by then Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams and posted about it on Instagram. At the time, some parents complained of the perception of political bias.

Rinderle said the district’s inclusion of the Abrams book in the charge “is a bit ridiculous” because no issue was brought up to her regarding that book.

“I did read that book, and there was never an issue with that book. There was never a conversation about that book as far as, you know, me not needing to read that book,” Rinderle said, “My principal thought it was a great book.”

Goodmark said the reasons laid out by the school district for the termination remain unclear. “If you’re going to fire a teacher, it needs to be done on a policy that people understand and can predict whether or not they’re in violation of it,” he said.

“All relevant facts and policies will be reviewed during the employee’s hearing,” the district said in an email. “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. The District remains committed to strictly enforcing all Board policy, and the law,” the Cobb County School District said in a statement to CNN.

Jeff Hubbard, president of the Cobb County Association of Educators – a teachers advocacy group representing Rinderle – told CNN that the divisive concepts law focuses on race and political teachings, but that “My Shadow is Purple” doesn’t focus on either.

“There’s nothing in that story that talks about race or political teachings,” Hubbard said, adding that legislation such as this has made teachers question what they can teach in class.

Goodmark noted that the lesson about “My Shadow is Purple” included “various types of concepts of acceptance and diversity, both between gender identity and racial diversity and all the other ways that we want our kids in the fifth grade to be able to interact with each another.”

Goodmark said Rinderle’s personnel file has “no negatives in it.”

“She has a sterling record. Her evaluations are strong. She’s a tenure educator who has not, to my knowledge, ever received a negative evaluation,” Goodmark said.

Rinderle remains on “administrative leave with pay pending the outcome of her termination hearing,” Goodmark said. Her hearing is set for August 3.

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