Metro Weekly

Teacher May Be Fired After Criticizing Ban on “Rainbowland”

District officials claim teacher Melissa Tempel's protest of banned song violates a district policy prohibiting political speech in schools.

Melissa Tempel

A teacher in Wisconsin says Waukesha School District officials have recommended she be fired after she went public criticizing the district’s decision to ban the Dolly Parton and Miley Cyrus hit “Rainbowland” from a spring concert back in March.

While no precise reason was initially given for banning the song, many critics at the time believed that the conservative majority on the school board sought to crack down on anything LGBTQ-related and had singled out rainbows due to their symbolism within the LGBTQ Pride movement.

Melissa Tempel, a first-grade teacher at Heyer Elementary School who has been teaching for 23 years, took to social media to complain about the banning of the song, whose lyrics imagine a world where everyone is accepted for who they are.

Tempel said her students had been excited to sing the song, only to learn they would have to sing something else.

She also reported on her Twitter account that administrators wanted to ban the children’s song “The Rainbow Connection,” sung by Kermit the Frog (Jim Henson) in 1979’s The Muppet Movie. But the ban on “The Rainbow Connection” was eventually reversed after parents complained about the beloved song being axed from the concert program.

Tempel’s criticism of the ban on “Rainbowland” gained her national recognition, catching the attention of various media outlets, Miley Cyrus’s nonprofit, and even former President Barack Obama, who followed Tempel on Twitter shortly after she spoke out.

But she now says that Waukesha School District Superintendent James Sebert has recommended she be terminated from her job, after placing her on leave beginning in April. 

Tempel says she was informed by Sebert last week of the district’s intent to fire her. Sebert’s recommendation would have to be approved by the Waukesha School Board. 

When asked by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about Tempel’s termination, Sebert told the paper he could not comment on a personnel matter.

Last month, Tempel’s opposition to the ban received the backing of Wisconsin State School Superintendent Jill Underly, who wrote a letter to Sebert and the school board saying she was “deeply troubled” by the decision to ban “Rainbowland” and suggested the district reverse course on its decision to enforce its “Controversial Issues in the Classroom” policy.

Under the policy, adopted in 2021, depictions, posters, materials, or other representations of potentially controversial issues or political movements, including LGBTQ Pride, Black Lives Matter, and Thin Blue Line, are prohibited from classrooms.

In March, Sebert claimed that “Rainbowland” was banned from the Heyer Elementary School concert for violating that policy. He also questioned whether the song “was appropriate for the age and maturity level of the students” and because of “social or personal impacts” that singing such a song could have on them.

“The decisions you have made as district leaders have intensified the stressors our teachers feel and helped create and continue to perpetuate a toxic environment,” Superintendent Underly wrote in her letter criticizing the policy. “Whether you realize it or not, you are, under the guise of protection, causing undue harm to students and staff,”  “However, this damage is reversible. It is paramount that you change course now.”

But Underly was criticized by Sebert and four local Republican state legislators, who defended the school district’s decision and accused her of undermining local control, in which individual school districts are allowed to make their own decisions based on the unique needs or personalities of their communities.

Although Tempel was told not to speak publicly or to others about her leave, she released a statement last week after finding out the district intended to vote on whether to terminate her.

The statement, released through the Alliance for Education in Waukesha, a group of parents who have previously called for the state Department of Justice to investigate Sebert for allegedly discriminating against LGBTQ students and staff through a series of policy changes. In that statement, Tempel said the decision to place her on leave has been harmful to her students.

“My students’ parents, many of whom speak Spanish, did not receive any information about my absence or when I would return, even when they asked for it directly,” Tempel wrote. “As recently as last week some of them didn’t know that I was placed on administrative leave.

“This is not normal procedure during a teacher’s absence and doesn’t prioritize the emotional or academic well-being of my students,” she added. “It will take me a long time to process how cruel the District’s actions were to those families and the chilling effect my termination will have on any other educators in the Waukesha Community.”

Tempel noted that during her 23-year career, she has been held up as a “model educator.”

“I am an award-winning, National Board Certified Teacher who was rated ‘distinguished educator’ by my administrators for three years in a row,” she wrote. “Last year, I was named Outstanding Educator by Wisconsin Badgers Athletics and WEAC [the Wisconsin Education Association Council]. I have never had disciplinary action taken against me.

“I remain committed to the work I have done throughout my life and career, both inside and outside the classroom, as an activist, advocate, and ally,” Tempel added. “I believe we need to have conversations in our communities about how to make sure our schools are inclusive spaces where our students feel safe and can focus on learning.”

She also said she will be pursuing a “First Amendment claim,” but it was unclear whether that meant that she would pursue a federal lawsuit.

However, James Santelle, a former U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, told the Journal Sentinel that he had advised the Alliance for Education to pursue such a lawsuit against the district on the grounds that the district’s policies may violate the First Amendment and teachers’ right to free speech and freedom of expression.

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