Attorney Craig Goodmark presents evidence in Cobb County, Georgia, teacher Katie Rinderle’s termination tribunal on Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023. (Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder)
A Cobb County teacher under fire for reading a picture book touching on gender norms made her case Thursday, the first day of a two-day tribunal that will determine whether she can keep her job.
The case is believed to be the first time a Georgia teacher is facing job loss under Georgia’s 2022 divisive concepts and parental rights laws, and the hearing saw both sides accuse the other of playing politics.
“My Shadow is Purple” by Australian author Scott Stuart is a children’s book in which people have shadows that are either blue or pink in alignment with their gender, but the protagonist, who enjoys both traditionally masculine and feminine activities, has a shadow that is purple.
The climax comes at a school dance, which the purple-shadowed protagonist attends wearing a suit top with a dress on the bottom. The students are told to separate into blue and pink and the main character is distressed, but in the end, the classmates reveal that their shadows are many different colors and the children celebrate their differences.
Katie Rinderle read that book to her class of gifted 10- and 11-year-olds and is facing termination after parents raised complaints that she was teaching controversial topics.
Two of those parents were called as witnesses Thursday as the district made its case for Rinderle’s termination during a hearing that lasted more than eight hours.
“Had I known that this book was going to be read and had I known the context with which the book was going to be read, I would have said, no, my child was not ready to hear that book and did not grasp whatever lesson was trying to be taught with that book,” said Casey Lee, mom of one of Rinderle’s students and a Cobb County educator.
Lee said the topic of gender as a spectrum rather than a binary is complex and divisive, and she and other parents would prefer to discuss it as a family.
“I was not ready to have that conversation at my home yet,” she said. “And I have older siblings. I have older siblings in my house. We’ve been exposed, and I still have been able to protect him, to have the conversation that I want to have with him in the time frame that I would like to have it, as a family.”
The district also said Rinderle admonished students for referring to the protagonist with he/him pronouns and said they should use they/them pronouns. Rinderle denied that she admonished students, saying she suggested using those pronouns during a discussion before reading the book.
The new laws are too vague for a teacher to know what would be considered controversial, argued Craig Goodmark, an attorney representing Rinderle.
“Nobody knows what these rules or policies mean,” he said. “They’re new, and that’s fine. But they have no definitions. They have no criteria. They have no objective measurements. And so it’s very near impossible to say that somebody could intentionally violate a rule if they have no idea how it is to be interpreted.”
Rinderle and her lawyers said she purchased the book from the school book fair and that the students chose to read it from a selection of other options.
But Rinderle should have known that parents would have problems with the book, said Sherry Culves, an attorney representing the district.
“This case, at the end of the day, is not about one book,” she said.
“If a family wants to read this book with their children at home, there is nothing wrong with that. That is their choice to make, because families get to decide how they want to raise their children on this issue.
“But the school district’s policies prohibit Miss Rinderle, a public school teacher, from taking that choice away from parents and inserting this lesson into the classroom,” she added. “No matter how strong or right anyone feels on the topic of gender identity or gender fluidity, it is without a doubt a controversial issue that members of this community have polarized views on.”
Culves accused Rinderle of presenting a one-sided view of the topic.
“Reading this book to your class and the comments you made to your class were influential on one side of the issue, weren’t they?” she asked.
“That’s incorrect,” answered Rinderle.
“Nowhere in this book does it ever suggest that a boy should dress like a boy and a girl should dress like a girl, does it?” asked Culves.
“This book has more than just clothing in it,” Rinderle said.
“Can you answer the question? Show me in the book where it says that boys should dress like boys and girls should dress like girls?” Culves asked.
After a brief exchange, Rinderle said the book doesn’t discuss gender differences.
“You don’t understand that the shadows are in fact a proxy for boys and girls?” asked Culves.
“So you’re asking my opinion? So this book talks about the child in the book, with their likes for different (things) — glitter, airplanes, engines, it talks about their many interests and feeling they should be able to choose any of their interests and explore all of their interests, much like gifted students have many interests, whether it’s science and math or playing the saxophone,” Rinderle said.
Culves said the book is clearly a metaphor for gender differences, quoting the back cover which says it considers “gender beyond binary in a vibrant spectrum of color.”
Goodmark countered that Rinderle has read her students many books that include characters sticking to traditional gender roles.
Christopher Dowd, Cobb Schools’ executive director for employee relations and evaluations, said Rinderle’s point of view that the book was not about gender issues factored into the decision to fire her.
“The district found Miss Rinderle to be adversarial, deceptive, disingenuous,” he said. “It was very difficult for us to believe that she would continue to insist the book wasn’t about the topic and about gender identity or gender fluidity. (She) did not once take any personal accountability. It was the students selecting the book, they selected the book, so it’s not my fault. It was the school’s fault for having the book fair and it being part of the book fair. There was not a point where she accepted that as the teacher, she would be responsible for anything that entered that classroom.”
Goodmark argued that Rinderle had the right to disagree with the district and sought to paint Dowd as biased because he was formerly a member of the Atlanta Police’s Red Dog Unit, which was disbanded after the city was forced to pay over $1 million in a suit alleging the officers violated the civil rights of people in an Atlanta gay bar during a botched raid. Dowd was a defendant in that case.
“Do you remember there were allegations as to using slurs in that investigation?” asked Goodmark.
“I do,” Dowd answered.
“Do you remember you were actually accused of using racial slurs?” Goodmark asked.
“Yes,” said Dowd.
“Ultimately, as part of that investigation, you received written reprimands for your participation with the Red Dog Unit, correct?” Goodmark asked.
“I did, but I’d like to have the record state that that had nothing to do with discrimination or any sort of racial slur that was made, if you were trying to bring those together somehow,” Dowd said.
“But you did receive a reprimand for your participation in the Red Dog Unit, correct?” asked Goodmark.
“I did, for a search and seizure.” Dowd answered.
“Search and seizure for violating somebody’s civil rights,” Goodman said.
Culves objected, saying that Dowd’s behavior as a police officer more than 10 years ago had no bearing on his investigation into Rinderle, but Goodmark suggested it could indicate bias against LGBTQ+ people.
Rinderle’s side is expected to call witnesses on Friday in what could be another marathon day of testimony. A tribunal of three former educators is tasked with deciding Rinderle’s fate, and their decision is expected to be announced next week.
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