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Teachers sue Georgia school district over restrictions on inclusive education

As conservative politicians across the nation step up their assault on any discussion of Black history, gender norms and identity in public schools, Katie Rinderle – a beloved elementary school teacher in Cobb County, Georgia – remains the first teacher to be fired under county policies adopted in the wake of Georgia’s trio of classroom censorship laws passed in 2022.

One of those state laws, the “Protect Students First Act,” bans discussion of topics that politicians have labeled “divisive concepts” – vaguely defined as references to race and racism in school curricula and classroom discussion.

In response, Cobb County’s school board voted to adopt its own even more confusing set of policies restricting undefined “controversial” and “sensitive” topics, broad terms aimed at censoring curricula and conversations about race, racism, gender identity and sexual orientation – and threatening teachers who cross these hazy boundaries with termination.

In March 2023, Rinderle read to her fifth graders, at their request, My Shadow is Purple, a children’s book about acceptance as told through the eyes of a child whose gender expression and identity challenges gender norms. So began a series of events leading to her being placed on administrative leave and formally terminated in August. The school district is even attempting to strip her of her teaching license.

In the video: A reading of My Shadow is Purple, a children’s book about acceptance, by Scott Stuart.

This is the new reality for thousands of educators nationwide, particularly in the South, as they try to navigate a path between affirming their students’ diverse identities and running afoul of new state laws that devalue students, remove truth and honesty from the classroom, encourage a culture of bullying and interfere with children’s education.

By November of last year, 22 state legislatures had passed 40 “gag order” laws or policies that censor topics involving race, and 17 states have passed 26 anti-diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) laws since 2021. Already, lawmakers have introduced 429 additional anti-LGBTQ+ bills in 2024 legislative sessions.

Rinderle remains unemployed and is still reeling from the “shock at being so highly praised in my career to have it go away suddenly.”

“Katie is a symptom of the acceleration of racism, bigotry and censorship that’s going on with Superintendent Chris Ragsdale and the new state [divisive concepts] law,” said Jennifer Susko, a longtime anti-racism advocate in the school district and co-founder in 2023 of the Cobb Community Care Coalition. The group supports racial and social justice as well as truthful, inclusive education. It is also calling for Ragsdale’s removal from leadership. A district school counselor in Cobb County for eight years, Susko resigned in 2021 to protest the school board’s ban that year of the 1619 Project and honest discussions about race and racism.

This week, the Southern Poverty Law Center and its co-counsel filed a federal lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia on Rinderle’s behalf against the school district and its officials. The SPLC is also filing the lawsuit on behalf of Tonya Grimmke, a current teacher, and the Georgia Association of Educators, which has 1,625 members in Cobb County and is the state affiliate of the National Education Association (NEA).

The case could have a widespread impact on slowing the tide of school censorship, whitewashing in education, racial and LGBTQ+ discrimination, suppression of truth and book bans nationwide. The suit seeks a court order that would strike down the vague, discriminatory policies that harm the school district’s LGBTQ+ students, that resulted in Rinderle’s termination, and that threaten the careers of other Cobb County educators.

“Cobb County’s district leadership has weaponized its vague censorship policies to terminate Katie Rinderle and caused fear and confusion among Cobb County educators who want safe and inclusive classrooms for their students,” said Michael Tafelski, SPLC senior supervising attorney for the Democracy: Education and Youth legal practice group.

“These vague policies have enabled an openly hostile and retaliatory learning environment for teachers and LGBTQ+ students, who deserve schools where their identities are valued and celebrated, not targeted and erased.”

‘Children are not divisive concepts’

The lawsuit charges that the district’s firing of Rinderle violated her rights to fair notice and equal protection under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It also asserts that Rinderle’s termination was prohibited retaliation in violation of Title IX of the Civil Rights Act, which bars discrimination on the basis of sex in schools.

The lawsuit seeks monetary damages for Rinderle based on these violations. (Rinderle was terminated despite an independent tribunal’s vote to keep her. Her appeal to the Georgia Board of Education for reversal of her termination is pending.) It also asks the court to prohibit the county policies that ensnared Rinderle, in order to lift the cloud of fear these policies create for LGBTQ+ students and the teachers who support them.

Grimmke, another plaintiff in the lawsuit, is an 18-year veteran teacher in Cobb County schools who wants to be able to teach diverse books and curricula without the risk of being fired. SPLC co-counsel are Craig Goodmark and Gerry Weber, civil rights and constitutional attorneys who have represented Rinderle since the school district put her on administrative leave last March; the NEA; and the Southern Education Foundation.

Advocates for inclusive teaching say the climate in Cobb County schools is openly hostile to students of color, LGBTQ+ and gender nonconforming students, students with disabilities and Muslim and Jewish students – the very reasons why inclusive classroom discussion and curricula are so vital to students’ well-being.

“Rinderle’s firing wasn’t just about losing a really good teacher,” said Erin Stephanie Elwell, a Cobb County parent of two and board president of the Marietta chapter of PFLAG, a nationwide support group for LGBTQ+ people and their families.

“It was an insult, as though these kids’ very existence is a divisive concept. Let me be clear: Our students, our children, are not divisive concepts. The book is so wonderful. If they say this is such a horrible book that we have to fire her, what does that message say not just to our queer kids? What happens with bullying? By not allowing these open discussions, administrators and teachers are giving the green light to it.”

When Rinderle looks back on her 10 years teaching in Cobb County, she can recall the many times when fellow teachers, school administrators and parents cast snide, bigoted digs against students, parents and families who were LGBTQ+, Black, who were politically progressive or had interracial marriages.

At Due West Elementary School, where Rinderle taught for five years before her firing, she said incidents of homophobic bigotry were so common that some students were concerned enough to want to make anti-bullying the topic of their major school project.

One of her students – whose gender expression and gender identity are not consistent with her sex assigned at birth – was bullied, laughed at and isolated simply for being different from her peers. Rinderle said that when the student was younger and used the boys’ bathroom, she was confronted by other students and told, “You’re not supposed to be in here.”

When she witnessed students using anti-LGBTQ+ slurs, Rinderle would explain to them that “homophobic language includes casual use of the word ‘gay’ to mean something negative and saying ‘____is gay’ is to put someone down, that using this kind of language is a form of bullying and is not OK – bullying of any nature or form is unacceptable.”

Rinderle reported bullying incidents to the principal and other administrators, but “no one ever followed up with me,” she said.

Across the district, transgender students are bullied, belittled and hounded by their peers. Yet Ragsdale, the superintendent, refuses to institute countywide, anti-bigotry education, even though parents, students, community members and faith leaders have repeatedly called for it.

“For years, high school students have come to speak at school board meetings concerned about racism, antisemitism, Islamophobia and homophobia in the district,” Rinderle said. 

“Yet in 2021, Ragsdale removed the No Place for Hate program in the county.”

Hate group connections

Rinderle’s firing and the lawsuit spotlight two school officials, particularly Ragsdale, the superintendent, and Christopher Dowd, executive director of employee relations and evaluations.

Dowd investigated Rinderle, including three aggressive, taped interrogations. He is a former member of the notorious Atlanta Police Department’s Red Dog unit. The group used illegal force and slurs against Black citizens for decades before the Atlanta police chief finally disbanded it after years of criticism. Dowd is among the Red Dog members who conducted an aggressive and illegal raid on a gay bar in Atlanta where the civil rights violations were so egregious that the city paid more than $1 million to settle the case. Multiple witnesses also testified that Dowd used racist and homophobic slurs throughout the raid. For example, when raiding a gay nightclub, Dowd stated that raiding a gay nightclub “is more fun than raiding [N-word] with crack.”

Throughout his questioning of Rinderle, Dowd could never tell her what “divisive concepts” actually means. Yet, he told her the book she read to her students was “inappropriate” and called her “adversarial” because she did not believe she violated district policy.

In December, the Cobb County Courier exposed links between three of Ragsdale’s top administrators and right-wing extremist Gary DeMar, president of American Vision, an anti-LGBTQ+ hate group based in the small Cobb County town of Powder Springs. The group espouses the death penalty for LGBTQ+ people.

When the news broke, Rinderle said she was “horrified and disgusted and rightfully concerned for students and families.”

“Admittedly, I couldn’t help but draw connections to when I learned about Christopher Dowd’s employment history,” Rinderle said. “Individuals who harbor homophobic, racist, bigoted views should not occupy high-ranking positions in our school system where the primary objective is to cultivate a safe, welcoming and inclusive environment that values the existence and experiences of all. I strongly believe these biases influenced my firing.”

LGBTQ+ students suffer

Nationally, one in four high school students identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, other or questioning, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Across the nation, 80% of LGBTQ+ adolescents report “bullying, victimization or peer harassment,” according to the CDC.

Cobb County clinical therapist Elizabeth Arauz told the SPLC that her young clients who experience gender dysphoria comprise at least 60-70% of her caseload. She has a waitlist of 15 to 20 more youths, mostly transgender students in middle and high school, but some as young as 5. More than half of them harbor suicidal thoughts.

“The need is unbelievable,” she said.

Arauz described transgender students who avoid the bathroom all day, feeling that the school forces them to choose between the girls’ and boys’ bathrooms and that any choice could lead to more harassment. Many suffer in silence, unwilling to disclose incidents to teachers or administrators for fear of drawing more unwanted attention.

Some cry in the nurse’s office or leave school to cry at home. Others transfer to the few district schools that are reputedly more tolerant, take absent days or drop out. The bullying and social isolation leave them scared, shamed and depressed and can lead to substance use, suicidal thoughts and worse, advocates say.

Through its What Works in Schools program, the CDC recommends that schools establish schoolwide inclusivity policies and practices and professional development for school staff to create safe schools for LGBTQ+ youth.

After she was fired

In the weeks after Rinderle’s firing, local residents who supported her showed up at the Rally to Replace Ragsdale in mid-September and wrote letters telling her how much their children loved and missed her.

For district youth with gender dysphoria, Rinderle’s firing was like a dagger to the heart of their already fragile sense of self and personal safety, Arauz said.

Arauz’s student clients and their siblings who had Rinderle for a teacher told her that “Ms. Rinderle was the only teacher that made them and other students feel heard.”

But even if Rinderle had not been their teacher, Arauz’s clients across the district knew the school district fired her and why.

“They knew she read a book she bought at the school fair,” Arauz said. “They feel ashamed, bad that they are not accepted in society. They have more fear now over being accepted because she was a leader and was fired for educating her students. ‘If she can be fired, what can happen to me?’ they ask.”

Arauz’s high school clients told her variations of the same response. Rinderle’s firing made them “feel as though they are ‘less than’ other students and looked down at.” One student said that it made her feel like they aren’t a “‘whole person,’ and that the school just doesn’t know how to deal with ‘people like us.’”

“It proves that they [the school system, some teachers] do not care about trans people,” a 17-year-old student told Arauz, and that “there is no point in trying to say anything about their needs or advocate because they fired a teacher for reading a book about nonbinary people.’”

Since her firing, Rinderle has used her voice to advocate for students on national television and on podcasts such as Schoolutions and MIT’s TeachLab. She has also advocated for students on local radio programs and statewide read-aloud and anti-book ban events during Banned Books Week.

“Advocacy is where my heart is,” Rinderle said. “I feel more empowered to speak truth to power now. In the classroom, I always advocated on behalf of children, encouraging them to find and use their voice not only for positive change but also for things they truly believed in and that mattered to them. Now I’m just doing it on a national scale.”

Photo at top: Teacher Katie Rinderle was fired after reading My Shadow is Purple to fifth graders at a school in Cobb County, Georgia. (Credit: Audra Melton)