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Cobb protesters complain superintendent sidestepped formal process to allow a TikTok book challenge

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Cobb protesters complain superintendent sidestepped formal process to allow a TikTok book challenge

Sep 14, 2023 | 9:23 pm ET
By Ross Williams
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Cobb protesters complain superintendent sidestepped formal process to allow a TikTok book challenge
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Katie Rinderle, left, and anti-Ragsdale protesters. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

The blowback over Georgia’s 2022 education policy overhaul continued in Cobb County Thursday as groups of protesters gathered to demand Superintendent Chris Ragsdale’s job.

Ragsdale struck a defiant tone at the evening meeting.

Cobb protesters complain superintendent sidestepped formal process to allow a TikTok book challenge
Cobb Superintendent Chris Ragsdale. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

“This situation is not over,” he said. “This situation is not about politics. This situation is not about faith-based or religious beliefs. This situation is about right and wrong, good and evil. The sexualization of children can never be defended nor allowed in any context, especially in education. There is no middle ground in this situation. There is no room to flip-flop on where you stand. You are either in favor of providing inappropriate material to children, or you are against it, and I assure you I am against it and I will not be moved.”

Ragsdale’s opponents disagree with the superintendent’s definition of inappropriate, charging the district with kowtowing to anti-LGBTQ activists.

The state’s second-largest school district has been the center of attention for culture warriors in recent months.

Last month, the school board voted 4-3 along party lines to fire Katie Rinderle, an elementary school teacher who read a picture book describing gender as a spectrum rather than a binary to her fifth grade class, representing the first test of state laws barring teaching “divisive concepts” and enshrining a parental bill of rights. Rinderle is appealing the decision.

Shortly after, the county announced it had pulled books it called inappropriate and sexually explicit from 20 school libraries. A district spokesperson declined to answer questions about whether a parent initiated the removal and which policy the district followed.

Libs of TikTok took credit for filing the removal request. Libs of Tik Tok is a social media handle known for mocking content created by LGBTQ people.

Protesters argued this violated the district’s policy requiring complaints to originate from parents or guardians and books to remain on shelves while principals review the removal request and make a decision for their own schools.

“There’s always been a policy for book challenges,” said Kathy Vinyard, a retired Cobb school media specialist. “And section B refers to what they call reconsideration, which means something that has already been purchased. There is a standard procedure for a parent or someone to complain about that material, a formal procedure that we were required to have a committee to address. A key component in the very first portion of that is that material has to still be available throughout the process until there is a decision by the committee to be taken off the shelf.”

Ragsdale said this view is incorrect.

“Yes, we have a policy for parents to challenge materials they believe are inappropriate,” he said. “However, as professional educators, we have an independent professional obligation to protect students from lewd and vulgar materials regardless of whether any parents, group, or outside entity files a complaint.”

Cobb County father and former state House candidate Michael Garza said he’s concerned about how pulling books could affect students.

“It’s not only just the removal of these books. We’re talking about firing teachers. We’re talking about firing media specialists. We’re talking about telling these children, these gay and lesbian children, these transgender children, these non -binary children, that they’re a divisive concept, that they don’t belong in our classroom. That is not coming from a place of trying to keep our children safe. That’s coming from religious extremists.”

Haya Fatmi, a Cobb County high school student and member of the Georgia Youth Justice Coalition, said she’s seen the effects of the new laws in her teachers’ reluctance to teach topics or literature like “A Raisin in the Sun” that could trigger complaints.

“My teacher had to preface this whole unit by saying ‘I am not trying to get fired, I am not trying to promote any certain viewpoint,’ and I just think it’s really sad that teachers are so scared of their jobs that they’re having to say this kind of stuff,” she said.

“Our teachers, they’re just trying to keep their job, and it’s so tense and it’s so scary,” she added. “I think it’s just so sad that we’ve reached the point to which teachers can’t feel secure in their jobs.”

About two dozen anti-Ragsdale demonstrators gathered in the parking lot outside of the district headquarters waving signs and pom-poms and wearing red shirts reading “Replace Ragsdale.”

Doing that will take some work, said Jennifer Susko, activist with the Cobb Community Care Coalition. Cobb County, once a conservative bastion, has become a reliable vote-generator for Democrats in recent elections, and county offices have largely shifted to the Democratic column, with the exception of the school board.

A case alleging that the district’s maps are illegally racially gerrymandered is working its way through court.

“Every time, they vote 4-3 to renew his contract for another three years, unfortunately,” Susko said. “So along with this rally, we say it’s a multi-approach strategy. We don’t just do protests and rallies, every election cycle, we’re canvassing for somebody to replace Ragsdale.”

“Cobb County is blue,” she added. “Look at the Board of Commissioners. It is a Democratic-held commission. We’ve been provided all of that, but we don’t show up like we are the majority, and we need to start so that we can finally get this part to catch up. So people on the outside looking in, just know that this is the last stronghold of the racism, the homophobia, all of the extremism, the right-wing stuff, until we can prove that we are actually the majority in this county.”