Wisconsin teacher fired over "Rainbowland" controversy fires back with lawsuit amid increasing reports of discrimination
By Alexandria Staubach
The Wisconsin teacher fired over her comments about the “Rainbowland” song says that since her termination the temperature for teachers has continued to escalate. Teachers both in and outside the state have reached out to her to report terminations they think were the result of supporting LGBTQ+ rights or being part of the LGBTQ+ community.
“My hope was to help avoid exactly this,” Melissa Tempel told Wisconsin Justice Initiative in a recent chat about her firing and the wrongful termination case she has filed against the Waukesha School District. She said she had hoped her actions would further the district being a safe space for everyone.
Tempel has more than 23 years of experience as an educator in Wisconsin schools. She spent much of her career specializing in English as a second language in the Milwaukee Public Schools. In 2018, she moved to the Waukesha School District, where she taught first grade at Heyer Elementary School.
Tempel was terminated in July 2023 for her public comments following her school’s ban on the song “Rainbowland.” She is now suing the district and its superintendent, James Sebert.
Throughout Tempel’s tenure the district maintained “Policy 2240,” regarding “controversial issues in the classroom.” The policy states that “the Board believes that the consideration of controversial issues has a legitimate place in the instructional program of the district.” The policy permits introduction of a controversial issue if it:
According to Tempel’s lawsuit, under Policy 2240 the district in August 2021 banned signage related to the Black Lives Matter movement and subsequently expanded restrictions to apply to anything related to being an “anti-racist.” The policy prohibited Gay-Straight Alliance locker signs, but “Students for Life” and "Thin Blue Lines" signs remained displayed in common areas around the district. While the policy ostensibly applied to include “Blue Lives Matter” and “Thin Blue Lines,” Tempel said it was not applied evenly to pro-law enforcement materials. Tempel also recalled a time over a holiday break when custodians were permitted to remove any sign they deemed controversial.
According to the suit, during the 2021-2022 school year Policy 2240 was used to address increasingly specific conduct, like teacher attire, and expanded to include affinity with the LGBTQ+ community. In January 2022, a teacher was suspended without pay for putting up a Pride flag and refusing to take it down.
The lawsuit highlights several instances when the district’s enforcement of the policy generated backlash—for instance, a petition started in September 2021 calling on the district to walk back discriminatory restrictions now has more than 4,500 signatures, and in October 2021, 30 parents, students, teachers, and community members protested and gave Sebert a letter objecting to the policy.
Tempel’s complaint asserts that in June 2022, 54 teachers resigned from the district, and several testified publicly at a school board meeting that they also resigned in direct response to Policy 2240.
In January 2023 the district updated its dress code: “(S)taff are not permitted to wear or display on their person any item (e.g. symbols, graphics, images, or text) while at work that may be considered political, controversial, or divisive, or which is likely to distract from student learning, disrupt the school environment, or cause disharmony in the workplace. This includes, but is not limited to, clothing and/or accessories, such as lanyards, masks, and pin/ buttons.” Tempel told WJI that the policy didn’t outright ban rainbows, but from then on identification-badge lanyards and face masks had to be a single color.
By spring of 2023 tension reached a fever pitch, and, as has been widely reported, Tempel’s class was forbidden from singing “Rainbowland,” by Miley Cyrus and Dolly Parton, at a school concert with the theme “The World.”
In the wake of the ban, Tempel took to Twitter. On March 21, at 6:39 p.m., she posted: “My first graders were so excited to sing Rainbowland for our spring concert but it has been vetoed by our administration. Where will it end?”
Her tweet included a graphic showing some song verses:
Tempel told WJI that the tweet “took off,” as “a freak occurrence of the internet.” By March 24 the district issued a public statement that the principal and central office administration determined the song could be deemed controversial and was banned in accord with Policy 2240.
When school resumed after spring break, Tempel was placed on administrative leave effective immediately. Tempel told WJI she never saw her class again and she was subsequently terminated from her job.
In recommending termination, Sebert wrote to Tempel that she was “entitled to disagree with the decision of the District related to the use of the song ‘Rainbowland’ at the Heyer concert.” However, the manner in which she chose to express her disagreement was “inappropriate, disruptive, and in violation of various District policies,” he said. In the letter, Sebert accused Tempel of “deliberately and intentionally” undermining the interests of the district.
Tempel is suing the district and Sebert, alleging they violated her First Amendment right to freedom of speech and that the district’s conduct is likely to deter a person of ordinary firmness from engaging in protected speech.
Wisconsin is experiencing a 14-year high in teacher turnover, with rates that surged to 15.8% in 2023, according to an August Wisconsin Policy Forum report measuring the rate of teachers moving between districts or leaving the profession altogether. The 2023 numbers are topped only by those seen in 2012 in the wake of Act 10, which limited public employee collective bargaining.
The report found that teachers of color “turned over at rates substantially above the state average.” Previous Wisconsin Policy Forum reports suggested that districts and school leaders may reduce turnover when they “foster organizational cultures and climates that affirm teachers’ identities.”
By way of contrast, Tempel’s complaint alleges the Waukesha School District suspended diversity, equity and inclusion training for staff in July of 2021, along with the work of the district’s Equity Leadership Team.
Tempel is currently not working as an educator in Wisconsin.
Sebert and the district have moved to dismiss Tempel’s lawsuit.
Help WJI advocate for justice in Wisconsin