In March, a first-grade concert in Wisconsin was barred from singing “Rainbowland” by Miley Cyrus and Dolly Parton. Now the school district has placed a teacher who complained about the ban on administrative leave. The district has not clarified when the teacher will be allowed to return or what repercussions she may face next.
Heyer Elementary first-grade teacher Melissa Tempel had been working with other teachers to prepare for a spring music concert. The teachers decided to include Cyrus and Parton’s “Rainbowland” in the set list. But school administrators, including the principal, barred the song’s inclusion, citing a district-wide policy on items “that may be considered political, controversial, or divisive.” Tempel tweeted about the ban, prompting massive public attention on the Waukesha School District.
And then, last week, Tempel was placed on administrative leave. She had come to school like any other day. But unlike any other day, district officials were waiting to stop and remove her from the classroom.
The school board plans to meet Wednesday. The agenda includes items limited to the “executive session” related to “specific personnel problems,” which suggests closed-door discussions about Tempel’s fate. Parents from the district have found this secrecy as well as the uncertainty around Tempel’s leave period or the reason for it in the first place to be indicative of district officials’ broader lack of transparency.
Members of the Alliance for Education in Waukesha, or AEW, a group of parents and community members, are inviting the public to attend a public singalong to “Rainbowland” and the school board meeting to “show support for an inclusive Waukesha.”
“I am deeply concerned that Ms. Tempel was removed from her classroom for standing up for them and what she knows is right,” said a parent from Tempel’s class.
“Melissa is a wonderful teacher, and the fact that the district did not address this issue with her and with the school principal directly, but instead called her out in a communication to the entire district community is not only wrong but juvenile,” said another Heyer elementary parent.
Tempel’s administrative leave is just the latest in what parents and teachers say is a school district’s overzealous enforcement of Board Policy 2240, Controversial Issues in the Classroom, which sets guidelines for when the district would “permit” a so-called “controversial issue” to be introduced in the classroom. The broad policy has gone as far as banning rainbow designs from school decor or teacher lanyards because of the association with the LGBTQ community.
The teachers’ initial planning for the spring concert seemed fairly innocent. After some back and forth, Tempel and her colleagues found Parton and Cyrus’s “Rainbowland” to pair well with other songs in the lineup, like “What a Wonderful World,” “Here Comes the Sun,” and “It’s a Small World.”
“Livin’ in a rainbowland, where everything goes as planned, and I smile, ’cause I know if we try, we could really make a difference in this world,” Parton and Cyrus sing in their chart-leading ballad.
But as the teachers soon discovered, the show would not go on as planned.
The school principal and another school administrator reviewed the song and decided that it “could be deemed controversial” in relation to Board Policy 2240. Waukesha School Board President Dr. Kelly Piacsek and Superintendent Dr. Jim Sebert have insisted that they did not “insert themselves into the song selection.” Rather, they framed the process as decisions made by Heyer Principal Mark Schneider and the school’s music teacher. Piacsek and Sebert claim they only reviewed and upheld decisions made by Heyer’s staff.
But members of AEW argue the officials are blaming school staff for a broader chilling atmosphere in the district that is being conducted, namely through the advancement of policies like 2240.
Curiously, Piascek and Sebert, while insisting they were not involved in the decision to ban the song, took it upon themselves to explain the exact rationale of why it was banned. They explained that the “subject matter addressed by the song’s lyrics” was not in line with the “the age and maturity level of the students.”
The district has not clarified exactly what is inappropriate about Cyrus and Parton’s song, nor have they clearly delineated why Tempel has been placed on forced leave. Attempts were made to reach Superintendent Sebert, Deputy Superintendent Joe Koch, School Board President Piascek, and Heyer Elementary Principal Schneider, but The New Republic did not hear back from any by publication time.
“This Superintendent and Board began the march toward marginalization last year, and it has only served to stoke fear and sow distrust in the Waukesha Community, which has yielded a pattern of bullying against anyone who calls out the district’s bias and harassment,” the AEW said in a statement Tuesday. “Now Waukesha is a national laughingstock, and the blame for that falls squarely to the feet of the district’s leadership, not those who have the courage to hold them accountable, like Ms. Tempel.”