When elementary school teacher Katie Rinderle read aloud the international, best-selling children’s book My Shadow is Purple to her fifth grade gifted class at Due West Elementary School in Cobb County, Georgia, earlier this year, she never suspected that she was risking her 10-year career.
Rinderle had recently purchased the book by Australian author Scott Stuart at the school’s Scholastic Book Fair. Before she read it, the students voted on a variety of books Rinderle offered and overwhelmingly chose My Shadow is Purple, which was nominated for a 2023 Australian Book Industry Award. After the reading, the class discussed the book’s message of acceptance of oneself and others and embracing diverse and complex identities and experiences.
The students reflected upon how they, as academic achievers, are often perceived as different from their peers. They discussed the importance of recognizing and accepting people as individuals. And they expressed how supported the main character must have felt when they found friends that accepted them and valued them for their differences and uniqueness.
Rinderle then asked her students to self-reflect and write a “shadow” poem.
Their reflections were personal, profound, neither divisive nor aimed at others. “My shadow is white, an underestimated thing,” one student wrote. “When mixed with colors, it can do amazing things but left by itself it’s kinda bland.” Another wrote, “My shadow is purple and now I do know that everyone’s different and not to be woe [sic] when my heart glows and tells me to see it’s fine to be me.”
And it wasn’t just students who responded positively to the reading.
“I feel that these types of conversations are necessary to have, and the end result would hopefully lead to less cases of bullying in our schools,” one parent said in an email.
Less than a month later, the Cobb County School District gave Rinderle the choice to resign or be terminated for violating the district’s policies. She refused to resign. On May 5, she was told she would be terminated by the district, and she was issued her official notice of termination on June 6.
Rinderle is the first known public school teacher to be fired under Georgia’s trio of censorship laws passed in 2022. They are the Protect Students’ Rights Act, commonly known as the “divisive concepts” law; a “Parents’ Bill of Rights;” and one known as the “harmful to minors law,” which allows for the removal or restriction of materials parents deem “pornographic” or otherwise harmful. Together, the laws censor class discussion, give parents the right to refuse instruction they disagree with and ban “offensive” reading materials from school libraries. If Rinderle’s experience is any indication, she will not be the last to be terminated, advocates say.
Rinderle isn’t taking the situation lying down. She is working with her union, the Georgia Association of Educators and the Goodmark Law Firm to fight her unjust termination.
In the Video: Teacher Katie Rinderle recalls how reading Scott Stuart’s My Shadow is Purple to her fifth grade class led to her termination.
“None of the reasons given by the district for Katie’s termination are based in fact or sufficient to justify the termination of this exceptional teacher,” said Craig Goodmark, a Georgia education attorney representing Rinderle at the public termination hearing scheduled for Aug. 3. “Georgia public schools need teachers like Katie, and Cobb County seems more interested in playing politics than educating young people. It’s a shame.”
To this day, the district has never answered Rinderle’s main question: What exactly does “divisive concepts” mean?
“School districts label certain topics ‘pornographic’ and ‘divisive,’” Rinderle said. “Yet when I asked [school administrators] what ‘divisive concepts’ means, they said they didn’t know and told me they would research it. They never told me.”
“It’s so important to teach children to be supportive of each other, true to each other and to themselves,” Rinderle said. “The lives, experiences and self-identities of students should be validated and celebrated. Children are especially harmed when they are not made to feel loved, appreciated and validated for who they are and their uniqueness.”
Teachers on high alert
Public schools have become the political battleground between those who support the teaching of historically accurate, inclusive school curricula and right-wing politicians who seek to erase our nation’s uncomfortable history. These politicians – and the parents who support them – accuse public school teachers of indoctrinating the nation’s students with “woke” ideology. As a result, teachers are in the crosshairs of classroom censorship laws and policies and a few activist parents seeking to enforce those laws as broadly as possible.
“Teachers are concerned that they will be subject to a complaint for simply teaching honestly about U.S. history,” said Deborah Menkart, executive director of Teaching for Change, a nonprofit organization dedicated to building social justice in the classroom.
Menkart co-directs the Zinn Education Project, which hosted a National Teach Truth Day of Action on June 10, along with Black Lives Matter at School, the African American Policy Forum, and more than 50 co-sponsoring organizations, including the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Learning for Justice (LFJ) program. A local Georgia event took place the same day at Stone Mountain and was hosted by the Stone Mountain Action Coalition.
“The critiques seem disingenuous and designed to intimidate or threaten the teacher and limit what can be taught.” Menkart said.
Since January 2021, legislators in 44 states have introduced bills or taken other steps that would ban or restrict teachers for discussing racism and sexism, according to Education Week. Eighteen states have enacted laws that impose bans and restrictions on teaching about race and racism.
“Classroom censorship laws are intended to create confusion and fear among educators,” said Michael Tafelski, senior supervising attorney for the Children’s Rights Practice Group at the SPLC. “They were designed to whitewash what children learn and permit loud voices that do not represent the majority to stifle and control the education of our children.”
Teacher and students suffer
Before the speedy unraveling of her teaching career, Rinderle had been promoted in 2022 to teach the school’s high-achieving and gifted students in the first through fifth grades. The program’s multicultural emphasis has a stated goal of building a global, civic-minded student body – a laudable goal at a school where 37% of the 633 students are nonwhite and only 3% of the teachers are nonwhite.
Until she read My Shadow is Purple, Rinderle received only stellar reviews from the school principal.
“Your ability to plan and instruct students BLOWS me away,” the principal wrote in one of many such handwritten notes. “You are rocking this role,” she wrote in another. She described Rinderle’s teaching and leadership at the school as “transformative” and “key to its success.”
The day after Rinderle read My Shadow is Purple, a Cobb County middle school teacher – and mother of one of Rinderle’s fifth grade students – complained to the principal, assistant principal and the area superintendent.
The following day, Rinderle was summoned to the school principal’s office twice for separate meetings about the book.
Rinderle said of the second meeting, “When I asked why this book was available in our school’s recent Scholastic Book Fair, especially if it was not deemed ‘appropriate,’ there was not a clear answer that could be given. When I asked if there was a specific list of books or topics that were not allowed in inclusive libraries, the principal stated, ‘No.’ When I asked if there was a rule or policy I was unaware of, she told me she wasn’t sure and she believed it was just considered ‘divisive.’ She told me parents were ‘talking’ and had emailed to complain.”
On March 13, Rinderle was placed on paid administrative leave, put under a gag order and told not to set foot on the school property. She was told that an investigation of the circumstances would be initiated.
School administrators never told the students that their beloved teacher was not returning to class, only that they had found a great replacement for her. Anxious parents messaged and emailed Rinderle, worried about her and their confused children.
“My daughter was very worried about her teacher and suspected that all wasn’t well,” one parent said, “as it was not normal for Ms. Rinderle to miss consecutive days of school.
“Emotionally, she was distraught when her class was informed by the school counselor that Ms. Rinderle was gone for good,” the parent said. “My daughter broke down in school and had to have a private session with the school counselor to work through her emotions. Ms. Rinderle’s class was one of the highlights of her school week. In her absence, my daughter described the class experience as ‘chaotic’ and ‘lacking direction.’ She no longer enjoyed it.”
Sarah-SoonLing Heng Blackburn, deputy director of LFJ’s Learning in Schools program, said she wasn’t surprised by the students’ agitation.
“Of course, this has an emotional effect on students,” Blackburn said. “For any kids who fall outside the white, Christian, heterosexual society conservatives are promoting, when they see an adult get in trouble, punished, they feel less secure in who they are. They lose an adult they can turn to. … [What happened to Rinderle] reveals to the child that the ideas they are told – freedom of expression, of belief, of speech, of religion – aren’t true.”
Over the following weeks, the district held three recorded investigatory conferences with Rinderle. Participating in various capacities were Christopher Dowd, the director of employee relations; the school principal; the lead investigator; and a representative from the Georgia Association of Educators.
According to an investigatory conference recording, Dowd communicated to Rinderle: “Not every topic will be specifically in black and white on topics [you] can and cannot teach which is why the language allows for a broader spectrum on ‘issues’ to navigate.” Dowd repeatedly referred to “pornographic” material and “inappropriate topics.” Despite receiving a complaint from less than a handful of parents, in the second meeting, the lead investigator specifically told her that she was “ineffective in the community,” and that there was a “revolt against you.” They referred to the book as divisive during the conferences.
Rinderle was forced to clean out her classroom in late April, around the time that the Georgia Professional Standards Commission announced plans to remove the words “diversity,” “equity” and “inclusion” from its proposed fall 2023 K-12 rules and standards. The changes take effect July 1.
On May 5, Dowd informed Rinderle that the Cobb County School District – the second largest in the state – intended to terminate her. Though the county’s formal disciplinary policy spells out “progressive discipline,” the district decided that Rinderle’s reading of My Shadow is Purple was “egregious” enough to ignore that policy.
“What happened to me is not just about me,” Rinderle said. “It’s the impact of what is being communicated to students – that it is acceptable to prioritize behaviors and attitudes rooted in bias and discrimination rather than ensuring that students’ backgrounds, experiences and identities are seen, heard, connected and honored in their learning experience. Censorship is not only a threat to our students, teachers and public school classrooms – but to our democracy at its core.”
Photo at top: After reading My Shadow is Purple aloud to her fifth grade class, Katie Rinderle, a teacher in Cobb County, Georgia, was fired amid complaints that the book espouses “divisive concepts.” (Credit: Calvin Florian)