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Educators Bring Federal Sex Discrimination Lawsuit Against Cobb County School District

COBB COUNTY, Ga. – In the first federal lawsuit challenging classroom censorship policies in Georgia, educators are suing the Cobb County School District for discrimination after fifth-grade gifted specialist Katie Rinderle was terminated last year for reading My Shadow is Purple, an age-appropriate picture book about self-acceptance and navigating gender stereotypes, to her class.

The lawsuit was filed today in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia on behalf of Rinderle, Tonya Grimmke, a current Cobb County educator, and the Georgia Association of Educators, which serves more than 1,600 educators in Cobb County Schools. The complaint describes how the district’s policies on “controversial issues” have been used to unlawfully discipline educators for mentioning LGBTQ+ and gender-nonconforming people and their experiences in the classroom, in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

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

Rinderle and Grimmke are members of the Georgia Association of Educators (GAE) and are represented by attorneys from the Goodmark Law Firm, the Law Offices of Gerry Weber, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the National Education Association (NEA) and the Southern Education Foundation (SEF).

Craig Goodmark, who represented Ms. Rinderle at her termination hearing, explained, “The board’s decision to fire Ms. Rinderle is not only wrong, it violates federal anti-discrimination law.”

The lawsuit challenges the unconstitutionally vague policies used to justify Rinderle’s termination and that discourage educators in the school district from providing inclusive learning environments for their students. The lawsuit states that Rinderle’s termination is illegal retaliation in violation of Title IX – the civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in schools.

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

The district adopted the policies in response to the passage of HB 1084, HB 1178 and SB 226 – a trio of classroom censorship laws signed by Gov. Brian Kemp in April 2022. These laws were part of a tidal wave of legislation passed across the nation that censors discussions about gender, race and sexual orientation in schools and classrooms. As of Nov. 1, 2023, at least 22 states had passed restrictions on teaching about race and gender.

“Every child deserves access to a great education and a safe learning environment, no matter their race, gender identity, or background. We need to let teachers do what they do best: helping all of our children reach their full potential,” said Harry Chiu, legal fellow and attorney for SEF.

“Books are for all of us. Censoring books written about and by mostly Black, brown, and LGBTQ+ people denies students the ability to see themselves and understand our similarities and our differences,” said NEA General Counsel Alice O’Brien. “We applaud Katie and Tonya for standing up for their students and for taking bold, legal action against politicians who want to ban books and mischaracterize what educators teach in our schools.”

“Since its founding, GAE has been deeply rooted in diversity, equity, and inclusion as an organization,” said Michael McGonigle, general counsel for the Georgia Association of Educators. “We understand that public education policies rooted in these universal values best serve all Georgia children. Public education is not a zero-sum game. This lawsuit is a decisive step to ensuring that every classroom provides a safe, and welcoming learning environment for all students – one that is rich in critical thinking and collaborative emotional learning regardless of race, gender identity, or socioeconomic status.”

The lawsuit seeks an injunction blocking the enforcement of the district’s censorship policies, as well as damages and additional relief for Rinderle, including her reinstatement.