Exclusive: Waukesha School District superintendent recommending teacher at center of 'Rainbowland' controversy be fired

Exclusive: Waukesha School District superintendent recommending teacher at center of ’Rainbowland’ controversy be fired

WAUKESHA, Wis. (CBS 58) -- After being placed on administrative leave for more than a month and allegedly being told by school officials she could not discuss matters with students or staff unless she wanted to be further "disciplined," the Waukesha elementary school teacher at the center of the "Rainbowland" song ban controversy is now facing termination on behalf of the school district's superintendent.

The situation started in late March when first-grade dual-language teacher Melissa Tempel, who has worked in the education field for 23 years, tweeted about how her students were not being allowed to sing a Miley Cyrus and Dolly Parton duet from 2017 during their spring concert -- a decision made by Heyer Elementary School Principal Mark Schneider and Melissa Yow, the director of elementary learning.

School officials later clarified that the "subject matter addressed by the song's lyrics" were in question, "especially in light of the age and maturity level of the students."

Since then, the ban has made several national headlines and appeared on both news and radio outlets across the country -- even being referenced in a segment during The Late Show with Stephen Colbert on Wednesday, March 29. 

Her original tweet now has over 221,000 views. 

Dozens showed up to a Waukesha school board meeting in mid-April, singing "Rainbowland" out loud to show their support for Tempel.

State Superintendent Jill Underly also voiced her displeasure with the district's decision to remove the song, sending a letter April 12 noting that she was "deeply troubled by the harm caused."

The story even caught the attention of Cyrus herself -- the Happy Hippie Foundation (HHF), a nonprofit founded by Cyrus in 2014, tweeting to Heyer students directly, telling them to brush the judgment and fear aside.

CBS 58's Ellie Nakamoto-White also spoke exclusively with Oren Yoel, the producer on "Rainbowland" on March 31, who said school officials should "let the kids sing" and that the song was about Cyrus' at-home music studio.

Now, 42 days later, Tempel's job at Heyer is up in the air, after Superintendent Dr. James Sebert mailed her attorney a formal letter on May 15, recommending that the Board of Education fire her after the district concluded its investigation. 

On Wednesday, Tempel sat down exclusively with CBS 58's Ellie Nakamoto-White to discuss the past several weeks and the district's latest course of action against her. 

"My students don't know where I am. The parents haven't been told why I'm gone," Tempel said. "I really want to be there with them and I'm pretty sad that I can't be there."

Tempel said she believes that the district's actions aren't looking out "for what's in the best interest of the students."

"I understand the teachers can't speak up, because look at what happened to me, right?" Tempel said. "It's only a place for learning academics, and not a place for learning how to become a global citizen."

“When you’re an administrator and your job is to protect kids, and to make sure that they feel safe at school, and that they feel comfortable enough that they can put aside how they feel different and instead appreciate the way that they feel different and know that they’re being supported, that’s their job and they have failed at that," Tempel continued. 

According to the letter which CBS 58 obtained, the superintendent said Tempel violated "various District policies" which include:

  • Page 7 of the Employee Handbook for Professional Staff Members
  • Board Policy 3179: Employee Concerns
  • Board Policy 3213: Student Supervision and Welfare
  • Board Policy 3310: Employee Expressions in Non-Instructional Settings 

"The fact that I've been out of the classroom is really surprising to me because I didn't do anything that would warrant being removed from the classroom," Tempel said. "I miss them so much like I think about them every day."

When CBS 58's Nakamoto-White asked Tempel if she "regretted anything," the answer was a resounding "no."

"Honestly, I think I would regret if I didn't say anything. I had an opportunity to speak," Tempel responded. "I feel good about knowing that I've been able to bring a lot of awareness to these issues because they're not just Waukesha issues, they're issues that are happening all over."

When asked what the message she wants to send to her students is, Tempel said she hopes they are proud of her.

"I want them to all know that I'm okay and I want them to know that I'm proud of myself for speaking up about something that I think is an injustice," Tempel said. "I really hope they understand this is something I had to do."

Tempel has until Friday, May 26 to inform the superintendent of her decision to pursue either an open or closed hearing in front of the board, after which board officials will then vote on her termination. 

"I think about what other jobs could I do, or what other kinds of service work I could do, and honestly it always comes back to teaching because I just love being with kids," Tempel said. "I firmly believe that's where I belong and I'm not going to stop teaching."

According to the superintendent, because this "is a personnel matter," they are unable to comment at this time. 

A full statement from Tempel reads:

"On Monday, April 3rd, I arrived at Heyer Elementary to begin a normal school day. I was met at the door by The School District of Waukesha’s human resources and district administrators who informed me that I was being placed on administrative leave. I was told that I could be disciplined if I discussed this matter with other staff, students, parents, or members of the public. The District took 42 days to make their decision. On Monday, May 15th, Superintendent Jim Sebert informed me that his recommendation to the School Board is that I be terminated. During the last month and a half, I have received an outpouring of loving, supportive emails, phone calls, text messages and hand written letters from parents, colleagues, residents of Waukesha, and beyond. I have not been able to answer any of them, nor have I been able to check in on my students and their families. I would like to thank all of those who contacted me. Your support kept me going during this stressful time. To my students, I would like to say, “Los extraño mucho todos los días y quería estar con ustedes en la escuela todo este tiempo. Los amo y los veré pronto. ¡Les daré a todos un gran abrazo!”. Removing me from my classroom had a harmful and traumatic impact on my students and the children at Heyer Elementary school. One parent shared an email she sent administrators that states, “My daughter’s self-image and self-esteem has been greatly affected without Melissa in her classroom. She is very stressed about the behavior and actions of other children and is often in tears before bed because she is so worried about school.” There are 24 first graders in my classroom and many of them have special needs. 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. 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. I have missed my first graders every single day since I was removed from the classroom with no notice, no ability to provide plans and no ability to communicate with my first-grade families. 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. In my 23 year career, I have been consistently 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. Last year, I was named Outstanding Educator by Wisconsin Badgers Athletics and WEAC. 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. 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. Organizations in Wisconsin like GSAFE Wisconsin, Diverse and Resilient, and Forge Wisconsin During my time in Waukesha, deserve recognition for supporting these efforts any time they are called upon. The information I have shared publicly about this issue has been shared during my personal time, off duty, and has been rooted in matters that are a public concern to the Waukesha Community, the state of Wisconsin and beyond. I shared my feelings as an individual member of this community. I cannot allow others to be intimidated into silence so I do plan to pursue a First Amendment claim. These are matters of public concern which the public has a right to know about and I should not have been recommended for termination because I shared them.The lyrics of Rainbowland are beautiful and promote inclusivity. This song, as well as Dolly Parton’s work through the Imagination Library and Miley Cyrus’ Happy Hippie Foundation, are examples of the type of inspiration and kindness the world needs right now. My goal has, and continues to be, to provide transformative experiences that educate, reflect, and inspire my students and us as individuals and a community, while acknowledging those individuals who have been marginalized or disenfranchised within our same community."

The lyrics to Rainbowland:

[Intro: Dolly Parton, Miley Cyrus]
Hey, Miley
It's me, I’m in Nashville
I'm on my way to Dollywood, busy as you are
Can't, can’t get enough stuff to do, can we?
But, anyway, I'm excited about, uh, singing with you
So I'm just gonna turn my CD player on with you singing
I will put this on a cassette, sing along with it
Then I'll run you off a CD later
Oh, I'm so high tech, I got a flip phone too
But, anyhow, uh, see what you think
And, um, here I go
Come on

[Verse 1: Miley Cyrus & Dolly Parton]
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
I won't give up or sleep a wink
It’s the only thought I think
You know where I stand
I believe we can
Start livin’ in a rainbowland
Where you and I go hand in hand
Oh, I’d be lyin' (I'd be lyin')
If I said this was fine (This is not fine)
All the hurt and the hate going on here (It needs to stop here)
We are rainbows, me and you
Every color, every hue
Let’s shine through (Through)
Together, we can
Start livin' in a rainbowland

[Verse 2: Both, Dolly PartonMiley Cyrus]
Living in a rainbowland
Where skies are blue and things are grand
Wouldn't it be nice (So 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
Make wrong things right (Make things right)
And end the fight
'Cause I promise ain't nobody gonna win (Come on)

[Chorus: Both, Miley CyrusDolly Parton]
Livin' in a rainbowland
Where you and I go hand in hand
Oh, I'd be lyin' (I'd be lyin')
If I said this was fine (This is not fine)
All the hurt and the hate going on here (It needs to stop here)
We are rainbows, me and you
Every color, every hue
Let's shine through (Through)
Together, we can
Start livin' in a rainbowland

[Bridge: Miley Cyrus]

[Chorus: Both, Miley CyrusDolly Parton]
Livin' in a rainbowland
Where you and I go hand in hand
Together (Let's do it together)
Change things forever (Forever)
I know there's gotta be a greater plan
We are rainbows, me and you
Every color, every hue
Let's shine through (Take my hand)
Together, we can
Start livin' in a rainbowland

[Outro: Dolly Parton]
Hey, Miley
Look, I know it sounds scrambled when I'm singing it with you
But the talking could do a lot better
At least, I may not get it all the way through 'cause I'm not sure of the structure without you
But I think this could work well, don't you?
If not, like I said, I'll write that love song for you
You probably wrote it about some boy you loved, didn't ya?

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