Georgia’s limited book challenge uptake as teacher fired

Georgia’s limited book challenge uptake as teacher fired

by Suswati Basu
Georgia teacher Katie Rinderle was fired for reading a book about gender fluidity to her class

Georgia’s recent move to streamline the process of challenging school library books has sparked national attention, but an Associated Press investigation reveals that the response has been relatively tepid. In line with the new law, parents of current students can raise objections to specific books in school libraries. This change was driven by concerns surrounding the content children are exposed to in public schools, particularly themes touching on sexuality, gender, race, and religion. Yet, despite the surge in book challenges since 2020, including around 4,000 instances of banned books nationally from July 2021 to December 2022, few parents have chosen to exercise this newfound right.

On top of this, for the first time, a Georgia school board fired a teacher who read a book on gender fluidity to her class. It becomes the latest in recent moves by Republican hardliners and far-right groups in censoring literature.

Limited engagement and contrasting views in Forsyth County

The introduction of the law has been met with mixed reactions and significant limitations. One key aspect is the restriction to parents of current students, a factor that has contributed to the limited engagement with the challenge process. The reluctance to challenge books is in stark contrast to the intense debates playing out in Georgia’s Forsyth County, where a parent, Allison Strickland, protested against certain titles in school libraries.

Read: ChatGPT books ban: school uses AI to remove content

Strickland, who collaborated with the Mama Bears, a group that recruits book challengers, targeted four novels that she deemed inappropriate for students. Strickland singled out: “Dime,” by E.R. Frank, in which a girl is lured into prostitution; “Tilt,” by Ellen Hopkins, in which a 17-year-old girl gets pregnant and a 16-year-old boy falls in love with an HIV-positive boy; “Perfect,” another Hopkins book about teens facing unrealistic expectations; and “Oryx and Crake,” by Margaret Atwood, about a plague that kills most humans. The debate that ensued revealed differing viewpoints among school administrators, teachers, and parents regarding the role of such content in educational settings.

Interestingly, a critical aspect of the nationwide debate surrounding book challenges is the focus on a relatively small group of conservative activists. Research indicates that a handful of individuals, often not even parents, play a significant role in driving book complaints across the country. This underlines the power of a few voices in shaping the discourse around educational content.

Federal intervention and implications

The spotlight on Forsyth County also extends to concerns raised by the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. In May, the department intervened in the district’s decision to remove certain books from its libraries, suggesting that such actions could create a hostile environment violating federal laws against race and sex discrimination. This development might have wider implications for book bans in public school districts, especially when they involve materials discussing LGBTQ and nonwhite individuals.

Read: ‘Criminalise librarians’: judge blocks controversial law

Forsyth County’s historical transformation from a rural area marred by racial violence in 1912 to a well-educated, affluent, and diverse suburban community is notable. Despite this diversity, only 47% of Forsyth’s students were identified as white and non-Hispanic in the previous year. The county’s political landscape, however, leans heavily Republican. In 2021, controversies arose as crowds opposed the school system’s diversity, equity, and inclusion plan. This discontent extended to book protests, resulting in the removal of eight books from libraries in early 2022. Although most of the books were eventually reinstated, “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” a memoir by George M. Johnson about growing up queer, remained excluded from the collection.

While the federal government’s intervention might have prompted some concessions from the district, the larger debate remains ongoing. The Forsyth County case exemplifies the complex interplay between academic freedom, parental rights, and the responsibility of educational institutions to provide a safe and inclusive learning environment.

Teacher fired over gender fluidity book in Cobb County, Georgia

It’s worth noting that amid these discussions, a recent case emerged where a teacher in Georgia was fired for reading a book on gender fluidity to fifth-grade students. This event, which occurred in Cobb County, reflects broader concerns about the extent to which public school teachers can incorporate controversial topics into their lessons and the role of parental input in shaping curricula.

The school board in suburban Atlanta voted 4-3 to fire Katie Rinderle, overriding the recommendation of a panel of three retired educators. The ten-year veteran teacher faced repercussions in March for reading “My Shadow Is Purple” by Scott Stuart at Due West Elementary School, leading to parental complaints.

“The district is sending a harmful message that not all students are worthy of affirmation in being their unapologetic and authentic selves.”

Katie Rinderle

This incident has garnered significant attention as it tests the boundaries of what public school teachers can teach, the extent of school system control over teachers, and whether parents can influence disliked instruction. The situation arises amidst a broader conservative movement against LGBTQ-related content and teaching in schools. Rinderle chose not to comment after the vote, but her statement was issued through the Southern Poverty Law Center, which provided her representation.

Read: Top librarian fired by board as book ban compared with Nazi Germany

“The district is sending a harmful message that not all students are worthy of affirmation in being their unapologetic and authentic selves,” Rinderle said in the statement. “This decision, based on intentionally vague policies, will result in more teachers self-censoring in fear of not knowing where the invisible line will be drawn.”

A teacher was fired in Georgia for reading a book about gender fluidity to her class. Cobb County School Board document states:
The following expectations are provided in accordance with O.C.G.A §20-1-11.
1. The Cobb County School District (District) prohibits employees from discriminating against students and other employees based on race (see Administrative Rules JAA-R and GAAAR).
2. The District shall ensure that curricula and training programs encourage employees and students to practice tolerance and mutual respect and refrain from judging others based
on race.
3. Curriculum, classroom instruction, and mandatory training program shall not advocate for divisive concepts (see Administrative Rule IFAA-R). 4. Nothing in this rule shall be construed or applied to:
a. Inhibit or violate the rights protected by the Constitutions of Georgia and the United States of America or undermine intellectual freedom and free expression; b. Infringe upon the intellectual vitality of students and employees;
c. Prohibit the District from promoting concepts such as tolerance, mutual respect, cultural sensitivity, or cultural competency; provided, however, that such efforts do not conflict with the requirements of state law;
d. Prohibit District staff from responding in a professionally and academically appropriate manner and without espousing personal political beliefs (see Administrative Rule IKBR) to questions regarding specific divisive concepts raised by students or school community members;
e. Prohibit the discussion of divisive concepts, as part of a larger course of instruction, in a professionally and academically appropriate manner and without espousing personal political beliefs;
f. Prohibit the full and rigorous implementation of curricula, or elements of a curriculum, that are required as part of advanced placement, international baccalaureate, or dual enrollment coursework; provided, however, that such implementation is done in a professionally and academically appropriate manner and without espousing personal political beliefs; or
g. Prohibit the use of curricula that addresses the topics of slavery, racial oppression, racial segregation, or racial discrimination, including topics relating to the enactment and enforcement of laws resulting in racial oppression, segregation, and discrimination in a professionally and academically appropriate manner and without espousing personal political beliefs.
‘Divisive Concepts’ addressed by Cobb County School Board in 2022

In 2022, Cobb County implemented a regulation that prohibits the teaching of controversial subjects, coinciding with Georgia lawmakers’ enactment of laws that restrict teaching “divisive concepts” and establish a parents’ bill of rights. While the divisive concepts law pertains to discussions on race, it also prevents teachers from expressing “personal political beliefs.” The bill of rights ensures parents’ authority to guide the upbringing and moral or religious education of their minor children. The case of Rinderle draws attention as she’s believed to be the first public school teacher in Georgia to be dismissed due to these laws.

Policy ambiguity and questions raised

While the district was said to be “pleased” by the outcome, it is not the first time that the vagueness of the policy has been brought into question. The ambiguity was raised when a chief librarian was fired in Wyoming last week for allegedly refusing to go along with the dubious policy. A member of the public likened the situation to Nazi Germany where books were burned. Librarian Terri Lesley accused far-right group MassResistance of deliberately interfering with the process and policy. At the same time, Mike Tafelski, attorney at the SPLC, who is representing the teacher in Georgia, accused Cobb County Board of Education for continuing “to prioritize discrimination, bigotry and retaliation” in not allowing her to read a book that talks about the inclusion of LGBTQ+ people.

Consequently this incident contributes to the larger narrative surrounding the challenges faced by educators in addressing censorship in the classroom.

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This article contains affiliate links via in which we may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you, in order to support local bookshops. We have not been commissioned to review books and services.

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