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Waukesha Rainbowland ban: Teacher who criticized school district’s decision terminated

By Mary Jo Ola

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    WAUKESHA, Wisconsin (WTMJ) — Melissa Tempel, a Waukesha teacher who criticized the school district’s decision to ban the “Rainbowland” song from a school concert, has been terminated.

The School District of Waukesha Board of Education held a hearing Wednesday regarding Tempel’s employment. Earlier this year, Tempel spoke up on a social media platform about the decision to ban the Miley Cyrus and Dolly Parton duet from the Heyer Elementary School student concert.

Tempel’s post drew national attention and debate.

“We’re disappointed with the board’s decision today, but we have everything we need in terms of a factual basis to file a First Amendment claim. This is not a case about culture wars or rainbows. It’s a case of our constitutional rights and Ms. Tempel has them like every other person in this country. We are moving forward with next steps and Ms. Tempel looks forward to vindicating her rights in federal court,” Tempel’s attorney Summer Mushid said following the decision.

“Thank you for everybody who sent me such sweet messages and support. I really appreciate it and I also just wanted to say hi to my students because I haven’t been able to talk to them since March and I really miss you guys,” Tempel said.

The administration’s attorney argued that Tempel violated multiple policies when she expressed her disagreement by not following protocol.

Superintendent James Sebert and Heyer Elementary School’s principal, Mark Schneider, said they received several emails and phone calls following Tempel’s post and interviews in the media. Some of the messages prompted safety concerns and a decision to have a temporary police presence at the school and district office.

“Ms. Tempel deliberately brought negative attention to the school district because she disagreed with the decision as opposed to following protocol and procedure. I believe that behavior is intolerable,” Superintendent James Sebert testified.

Mushid argued that Tempel, who was praised for her work as a teacher and never faced disciplinary action previously, was exercising her First Amendment right during off hours.

Sebert and the school board declined to comment after the decision was announced. The district issued the following statement Thursday:

According to the agenda posted online, the meeting would have been held behind closed doors, but that the school district employee requested the meeting be held in open session. No public comment period was scheduled. After the public meeting, the Waukesha School Board met in a closed session and then returned to open session to vote.

Schneider testified that the music teacher who was organizing the set list initially approached him about the song suggestion because rainbows had recently become overly political in the district.

Schneider said his concern surrounded the artist and if young students researched her they would find inappropriate pictures.

Prior to the hearing, dozens of people wore black and carried signs for a silent rally in support of Tempel.

“We didn’t think there was going to be an issue with the song when we picked it. We just thought it was a nice song,” Tempel told TMJ4 News in a previous interview.

She said her students were excited about getting to perform Rainbowland.

“It’s an upbeat song and it’s really fun and they liked it,” Tempel said about her student’s initial reaction to the song.

Tempel described her students’ disappointment with the song being pulled from their performance.

“To be told we can’t sing a song about rainbows or about Rainbowland that has a message about peace and harmony and love, it was just shocking. And it was really confusing for the kids. They’re asking why and we don’t have answers. We haven’t been given any answers except it could be controversial,” Tempel said.

Some of the lyrics include: “We are rainbows me and you. Every color, every hue. Let’s shine on through.”

Becky Gilligan has a fourth grader at the school who was in Tempel’s class a few years ago. Gilligan is also confused about why the song was deemed controversial.

“When you look at the lyrics it’s about acceptance and being who you are and not having to worry about anybody else making fun of you,” Gilligan previously told TMJ4 News. “I don’t exactly know what was controversial about it.”

In a statement, the Waukesha School District explained that the song was reviewed using a board policy about controversial issues in the classroom and the decision to take it off the setlist was made based on appropriateness in the school environment. The district said the song “Rainbow Connection” by Kermit the Frog will be performed instead.

Tempel and Gilligan both said the district hasn’t clarified for them which part of the song is controversial.

Tempel said, “It just feels like censorship. We’re in a public school where kids are supposed to be able to learn about all different kinds of people. We’re not supposed to be excluding any group, any individual.”

View the Waukesha School district board policy in question below:


The School Board believes that the consideration of controversial issues has a legitimate place in the instructional program of the schools.

Properly introduced and conducted, the consideration of such issues can help students learn to identify important issues, explore fully and fairly all sides of an issue, weigh carefully the values and factors involved, and develop techniques for formulating and evaluating positions.

For purposes of this policy, a controversial issue is a topic on which opposing points of view have been promulgated by responsible opinion and likely to arouse both support and opposition in the community.

The Board will permit the introduction and proper educational use of controversial issues provided that their use in the instructional program:

is related to the instructional goals of the course of study and level of maturity of the students; does not tend to indoctrinate or persuade students to a particular point of view; encourages open-mindedness and is conducted in a spirit of scholarly inquiry.

Controversial issues related to the program may be initiated by the students themselves provided they are presented in the ordinary course of classroom instruction and it is not disruptive to the educational setting.

Controversial issues may not be initiated by a source outside the schools unless prior approval has been given by the principal. Issues pertaining to human growth and development, as defined by statute, are subject to 118.019, Wis. Stats.

When controversial issues have not been specified in the course of study, the Board will permit the instructional use of only those issues which have been approved by the principal.

In the discussion of any controversial issue in the classroom or in the course of professional duties, a teacher may express a personal opinion after students have concluded their expression, and shall identify their own opinion as such, and must not express such an opinion for the purpose of persuading students to his/her point of view.

The Board recognizes that a course of study or certain instructional materials may contain content and/or activities that some parents find objectionable. If after careful, personal review of the program lessons and/or materials, a parent indicates to the school that either content or activities conflicts with his/her religious beliefs or value system, the school will honor a written request for his/her child to be excused from particular classes for specified reasons. The student, however, will not be excused from participating in the course or activities mandated by the State and will be provided alternative learning activities during times of parent requested absences.

The Superintendent shall develop administrative guidelines for dealing with controversial issues.

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