A 1st grade teacher in Wisconsin was fired for objecting to her district’s decision to prohibit a student performance of a song about rainbows and acceptance.
In March, Heyer Elementary School 1st grade teacher Melissa Tempel learned that her students could not sing “Rainbowland,” a song by Miley Cyrus and Dolly Parton, at the school’s spring concert, because her principal, Mark Schneider, decided it could be considered controversial, citing the district’s so-called controversial issues policy. She tweeted about her frustration at the Waukesha district’s decision to not allow the song.
Following the tweet, Tempel was placed on administrative leave in April. In May, she received a letter from the district’s superintendent, James Sebert, announcing that he was recommending her termination to the school board as a result of an investigation the district conducted, in which it found that she had violated several employee conduct policies.
On July 12, after a four-hour public hearing where lawyers for Tempel and the district presented their arguments, the board unanimously voted to accept Sebert’s recommendation to fire Tempel.
At the hearing, Schneider, Sebert, and other administrators testified about the impact of Tempel’s tweet. They said it brought negative attention to the district, threats, and public criticism, ultimately risking student safety.
“As stated in the report, you were entitled to disagree with the decision of the district related to the use of the song ‘Rainbowland’ at the Heyer concert,” Sebert said in the May 15 letter to Tempel announcing the results of the investigation.
“However, the manner in which you chose to express your disagreement with the district’s decision was inappropriate, disruptive, and in violation of various public policies. You failed to raise your concerns through the appropriate channels and instead took your concerns public in a manner intended to bring as much attention to the district’s decision as possible, which resulted in substantial disruption to the school environment.”
The Waukesha district did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The school board released a statement on July 13 about its unanimous decision the previous day, according to board chair Kelly Piacsek, who sent EdWeek a copy.
“The decision of the Board was not about any particular song, that may or may not have been selected for a concert, but the process by which an employee goes about expressing their concerns in a productive manner in accordance with Board Policy,” the letter said.
Tempel believes she was fired for standing up for the song and against her principal’s decision to bar students’ performance of the song.
“I tweeted about it because I knew that people were going to be interested in hearing that this song that’s completely wholesome has been banned by my school district, and we weren’t given any reason,” she said in an interview with EdWeek.
“But when you look at all the policy changes, it’s easy to deduce that the reason is rainbows.”
Some educators face consequences for defending their beliefs
Tempel’s firing is the latest example of repercussions teachers are facing nationwide for discussing political, racial or gender, and sexuality issues both in the classroom and publicly. From 2020 to 2022, at least 160 teachers have resigned or been fired for discussing these and other heavily debated topics, according to a Washington Post analysis. Others have faced a public backlash.
Matthew Hawn, a teacher in Tennessee, was fired in 2021 for teaching that white privilege is a fact. Almost two years later, he was still fighting to get his job back. Amanda Jones, a librarian in Louisiana, received online backlash for weeks and an emailed a death threat after she made a speech against censorship at a public library. She plans to appeal the dismissal of a lawsuit she filed against Facebook groups she claimed harassed her.
Tempel would not have acted differently, even if she knew the consequences beforehand, she said.
“If I hadn’t spoken out, I don’t know that I would have been able to forgive myself for keeping quiet because this is something that matters so much to the future of our kids,” she said.
On April 12, Jill Underly, Wisconsin’s elected state superintendent of public instruction, sent a letter to Waukesha urging the more than 12,000-student district to re-evaluate the controversial issues policy, and the initial decision to put Tempel on leave.
“I write today because I am deeply troubled by the harm caused as you’ve applied the School District of Waukesha’s controversial issues policy,” she said in the letter Education Week obtained.
“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.”
Parton and Cyrus say the song is about inclusion and acceptance
“Rainbowland” is a song about being “exactly who we are,” according to the lyrics. Both Parton and Cyrus have discussed the song’s message of inclusion and acceptance of different identities in media interviews.
Wouldn't it be nice to live in paradise / Where we're free to be exactly who we are / Let's all dig down deep inside / Brush the judgment and fear aside.
In September 2017, Cyrus told the music website NME that the song is about different races, genders, and religions.
“If we all did come together to create and said, ‘Hey, we’re different, that’s awesome, let’s not change to be the same, let’s stay different but let’s come together anyway.’ Because a rainbow’s not a rainbow without all the different [colors].”
The following month, Parton told Taste of Country that the song offers a message of hope and positivity.
“It’s really about if we could love one another a little better or be a little kinder, be a little sweeter, we could live in rainbow land,” Parton said. “It’s really just about dreaming and hoping that we could all do better. It’s a good song for the times right now.”
In his testimony to the school board, Schneider said he decided “Rainbowland” could violate the district’s controversial issues policy because he was concerned about students looking up Cyrus online, given “some of the images that she portrays.” Schneider also denied that the association with rainbows or the message of inclusion was part of the reason he did not allow the song. (The district eventually allowed first graders to sing another song called “Rainbow Connection,” by Jim Henson, from “The Muppet Movie,” at the concert after the principal went back and forth on that decision.)
Waukesha’s controversial issues policy: What it says and how it’s enforced
The controversial issues policy, which was passed in 2017 and updated in 2022, defines any issue that may be the subject of intense public argument, disagreement, or disapproval as controversial.
These topics could have “political, social or personal impacts,” or “arouse both support and opposition in the community.” The policy does not explicitly mention rainbows or pride flags. However, even before the updated version of the policy was in place, the district suspended a special education teacher for displaying a pride flag in her classroom, according to local media.
In a February 2023 meeting, when asked what counts as political or controversial, Sebert, the superintendent, told parents that “a lot of it really comes down to the rainbow-type stuff, and making sure that isn’t in the classrooms,” according to a local parent group, Alliance for Education in Waukesha. The district also has policies that require students to use the bathroom associated with their sex assigned at birth as opposed to their gender identity, and ban teachers from using students’ affirmed pronouns if they don’t correspond with the student’s sex assigned at birth.
More than 160 Waukesha teachers resigned between June 2022 and June 2023, with some citing board policies as their reason, the local teachers’ union told the Washington Post. Since the policy was updated, Tempel felt she wasn’t able to support students if they talked to her about their lives, in case anything she said could be considered a policy violation, she said.
Tempel intends to sue the district for violating her First Amendment rights, according to her lawyer, Summer Murshid.
“This is not about culture wars or rainbows, this is about the constitutional rights that each and every one of us have, including teachers, who do not check those rights at the door when they enter their schools,” Murshid said.
The district argued that because Tempel identified herself as a teacher in the tweet, the employee handbook and district policies were still applicable to her conduct. Tempel and her lawyer said she sent the tweet outside of school hours, and it was not part of her professional responsibilities, so she was bringing attention to a decision she found concerning.