Georgia’s new school censorship laws have claimed their first known victim. Cobb County elementary school teacher Katie Rinderle was fired for reading her class a book she bought at a school book fair, because the book’s message of accepting and embracing differences offended some parents.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Rinderle had offered her fifth grade gifted program students a choice of books to read and discuss, and they chose Scott Stuart’s “My Shadow is Purple,” which you can check out here. The book centers on a child who looks at their mother’s pink shadow and their father’s blue shadow and doesn’t identify fully with either. Their shadow is purple, and they have traits in common with each of their parents. At a school dance, the child is pressured to choose pink or blue, but ultimately, other kids speak out to say that actually, their shadows aren’t pink or blue, either—they’re yellow, brown, red, green.
Rinderle, who is obviously an excellent teacher, then had her students discuss the book’s themes and write poems about their own shadows.
“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.”
Following complaints from a small number of parents—and despite other parents vocally supporting her—Rinderle was investigated, told to resign or be fired, and fired.
Two days after she read “My Shadow is Purple” to her class, Rinderle was summoned to the principal’s office twice for meetings. “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,” she told the SPLC. “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.”
That message came through repeatedly: The rules are vague. It doesn’t matter, because we’ve decided you broke them.
In a recorded investigative meeting, Christopher Dowd, the district’s director of employee relations, said, “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.” In other words, you’re guilty if we decide you’re guilty.
The 2022 Georgia laws under which Rinderle was fired give parents broad rights to demand the removal of class and library materials and censorship of class discussion. Like most such laws passed in recent years targeting public school curricula and teachers, the Georgia laws are broad and vague enough to allow almost anything to be the subject of a complaint. That in turn means that teachers have to censor themselves because they never know when they’re going to get in trouble. After all, Katie Rinderle was fired for reading a book sold by the book fair at her school.
That vagueness is a weapon that will never be wielded equally. District administrators have the discretion to take some parents’ complaints seriously and not others. They have the power to fire some teachers and let others off with a warning. And factors like race and membership in other marginalized communities will always be at play in those decisions.
In the recorded conversation with the teacher, Dowd also repeatedly referred to “inappropriate topics” and “pornographic” material. Now, you can read “My Shadow is Purple” yourself. There is nothing remotely pornographic about this book, which in fact is aimed at children younger than Rinderle’s fifth graders. What is “inappropriate” about it is that it tells kids they don’t have to fit firmly into a gender binary. That’s all. Nothing sexual. Nothing explicit. Just, “It’s okay not to be pink or blue. It’s okay to like traditionally masculine things and traditionally feminine things.”
As administrators investigated and questioned and castigated Rinderle, they communicated to her that there was “a revolt against you.” She wasn’t told about support from her students’ parents, although it was out there.
“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.”
Teacher turnover is known to be a problem for students, something that disrupts learning. Losing your excellent teacher under mysterious circumstances in the middle of a school year? That’s traumatic for kids. And then being told that your teacher was fired for teaching that it’s okay to be different? Well, that’s one way to ensure that LGBTQ+ kids stay deep in the closet, terrified, with serious mental health consequences.
What happened to Katie Rinderle is horrific, and she is rightly fighting her dismissal with the help of her union, the Georgia Association of Educators. It’s important to put it in the broader context—from the damage it does to kids and specifically LGBTQ+ kids to how this is part of a broader campaign against public education. Teachers are leaving the profession because they’re being called groomers and indoctrinators, because they fear parents' reactions to teaching about race in U.S. history, and because, “We are constantly being questioned by people who do not have degrees in education.” This is why the percentage of teachers who feel respected has plummeted over the past decade.
Republicans are passing laws that empower parents not just to say their own kids can’t read certain books but that those books have to be taken out of schools entirely. But again, in practice, it’s only some parents and some complaints (right-wing ones, to be specific) that wield that kind of power. This isn’t about one book or one teacher. In the relatively short time since the new wave of school censorship laws were passed, we’ve seen so many cases, like the 1998 Disney movie about Ruby Bridges removed from schools in Pinellas County, Florida, because of a parent complaint. A textbook company removed mentions of race from the Rosa Parks story after looking at the books being banned in Florida. The College Board backed down to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ demands on an Advanced Placement African American Studies class, then realized it had emboldened a bully when he started coming for AP Psychology, too.
This is a right-wing effort to kill two birds with one stone: to weaken schools by painting them as sites of harm to children and driving teachers out of the profession, and to keep bigotry socially acceptable in this country and maintain a white, straight, conservative power structure as a natural state of affairs beyond questioning. While it’s partly a matter of convenience for Republicans, these things are truly linked. Public education as a public good, a place for all kids to be educated in ways that benefit our society and the nation as a whole, is served by inclusion and support. Done well, it does promote equality beyond the classroom. And that’s a key part of why it’s coming under such ferocious attack from the right.
Joining us on "The Downballot" this week is North Carolina Rep. Wiley Nickel, the first member of Congress to appear on the show! Nickel gives us the blow-by-blow of his unlikely victory that saw him flip an extremely competitive seat from red to blue last year, including how he adjusted when a new map gave him a very different district and why highlighting the extremism of his MAGA-flavored opponent was key to his success. A true election nerd, Nickel tells us which precincts he was tracking on election night that let him know he was going to win—and which fellow House freshman is the one you want to rock out with at a concert.