Children's book on a shelf surrounded by other books in a public library.
Inclusive children's picture books are displayed at Mountain View Library, Cobb County. (Emma Buker/Fresh Take Georgia)

A Cobb County elementary teacher painstakingly read through each of her classroom books to ensure there was no content parents would find controversial. The tedious task was done in time she would have used to develop lesson plans for students. 

This teacher, who asked to remain anonymous, said she is not the only teacher who feels the need to closely scrutinize every supplementary material in her classroom. 

“You can definitely tell people are being more cautious and thinking twice,” she said. “We definitely are checking and rechecking and asking other [teachers’] advice. You don’t want to lose your job over a resource you use.”

The teacher said she was shocked when she found out Katie Rinderle, another Cobb educator, was fired for reading a “divisive” picture book to her students. The district sent out a memo to teachers, she said, that told them to be aware of what they read to their classes and use as resources. 

“I think she was fired as an example to others,” she said.

This teacher’s experience is not isolated to her school. Many teachers across Cobb County cleared out their personal classroom libraries.

Educators across the district fear becoming the next Rinderle. She was fired for reading “My Shadow is Purple” by Scott Stuart to her students. She is the first teacher fired under the “Protect Students First Act,” informally known as the “divisive concepts” law.  

Rinderle was suspended in March for reading the book. 

The law defines “divisive concepts” as any content that implies one race is superior to others, one race is inherently oppressive to others, and “America is fundamentally racist.” The picture book Rinderle read made no reference to race. The official summary of the book says, “This story considers gender beyond binary in a vibrant spectrum of color.” 

The law does not include content regarding gender or sexuality in educational materials. Nevertheless, the Cobb County School Board voted 4-3 along partisan lines to terminate Rinderle on Aug. 17, 2023. The board’s vote overrode that of a tribunal of retired educators who suggested Rinderle keep her job. 

Numerous parents, teachers, and authors spoke out in Rinderle’s defense on social media. Additionally, some people voiced concerns over the well-being of other Cobb students and educators. 

“My son’s eighth-grade English teacher actually took all of the books out of her classroom before the open house because she was worried that a parent might find one of them objectionable,” said Colleen Oakley, a Cobb-based author and parent. “When you don’t support your teachers and you create a culture of fear around reading books, you have teachers who are doing their jobs in fear. And when you have a climate of fear, I think the children suffer.”  

Oakley said the laws around divisive concepts take autonomy away from teachers. She said the bill was “censoring” educational materials. 

Jeff Hubbard, president of Georgia Association of Educators, said teachers across Cobb County panicked in the weeks following Rinderle’s termination. Several teachers, who are members of GAE, have reached out to Hubbard asking for advice on breaking their contracts with the district, he said. 

“Other counties still have jobs available and they don’t want to teach here,” Hubbard said. “How can they teach here under this stress and pressure? They’ve pulled their libraries; they’ve pulled their supplemental materials.”

Following Rinderle’s termination, the Cobb school district announced in an email to parents that two books were to be immediately removed from all school libraries: “Flamer” by Mike Curato and “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” by Jesse Andrews. Both books were removed for including profanity and sexually explicit material. 

Certain high schools also removed “This Book is Gay” by Juno Dawson for its clear description of various identities in the LGBTQ+ community.

Hubbard said pulling books with LGBTQ+ themes is harmful to the mental welfare of Cobb students. 

“We’re purposely limiting the potential for children to have access to books which could speak out to issues they are having … the stress, the concern, the fear that they have of being different because of their gender or sexuality,” Hubbard said. “If we’re inhibiting those books and opportunities for children to learn more about who they are, if something then happens, do you congratulate yourself because you banned the book or the fact that you’re having to bury a child?”

Although the Cobb County School Board and groups like Moms for Liberty say that sexual content should not be found in middle and high school libraries, some experts disagree.

Bryan Gillis, the author of “Sexual Content in Young Adult Literature: Reading Between the Sheets,” wrote the book to discuss the importance of representing sex in young adult novels. 

Gillis does not consider most sexual content in young adult books as pornographic; he said it can sometimes even be educational, helping teens identify unhealthy patterns in relationships. 

“If you read any of those books, none of them make you feel comfortable about sex when you’re done reading,” Gillis said. “It’s awkward and it’s terrible… We want to give [teens] lessons. We want them to live vicariously through these novels so they don’t do it in real life. 

With teachers pulling classroom libraries and administrators removing books, concerns arise about the teachers’ abilities to fully help kids learn to love reading. 

“[Teachers] love their jobs,”  said Jeff Hubbard, president of GAE. “They love teaching children how to read. But more importantly, they love teaching children to love reading, and that’s what’s been taken away here. That is what is so tragic.”

Schools are not the only places that Cobb students can go to find new books. Cobb County Public Libraries typically receive fewer visitors once the school year starts. However, at some branches of the library, the number of visitors from summer vacation to the start of school has remained steady, even increasing, instead of dropping. 

“The best advice I can give teachers is to make resources available to kids,” said Gillis. “In other words, tell them to go to their public library, make sure they get a library card … Tell them ‘Here’s some places you can go where you can find a better variety of books than what we have now at our school.’ ” 

Gillis, Hubbard, and Oakley urge Cobb parents to speak up in defense of teachers and students. With teachers too cautious to take a firm stance against the district, vocal parents may be the best chance to create change. 

Teachers have not lost hope. The anonymous teacher said she believes teachers are passionate and dedicated to the success of their students. 

“I don’t ever want to do disservice to a student … I try to do my best every day for them to become successful,” she said. “I’m not going to be able to change this law so I’m going to have to make it work to the best of my ability.”

For more from Fresh Take Georgia and the latest updates, follow us on Facebook and Twitter.