The Waukesha School District received swift backlash from parents after a Miley Cyrus and Dolly Parton song was labeled too controversial for first graders.
The Heyer Elementary school first graders were to sing the duet "Rainbowland" in their spring concert.
A music teacher asked Principal Mark Schneider for approval, according to a statement from the district. He and a central office administrator reviewed the song together but found it "could be deemed controversial" based on the district's Board Policy 2240.
The song lyrics are focused on acceptance and inclusion: "Wouldn’t it be nice to live in paradise / Where we’re free to be exactly who we are," and "Let’s all dig down deep inside / Brush the judgment and fear aside."
Waukesha Superintendent James Sebert declined an interview. But in an emailed statement, he said "the question was around whether the song was appropriate for the age and maturity level of the first-grade students."
The song ban drew attention from parents and staff — and national media — as school-focused culture wars continue around the country.
"All of the same things that are happening in Florida are happening in Waukesha," said Melissa Tempel, a first-grade dual-language teacher at Heyer Elementary. "It's scary because other districts look toward our district when they want to make changes or have their policy proposals validated. ... I fear for students. I feel for their mental and physical well-being, and I feel for their mental health. It's really pretty terrifying to know that we're going backwards."
Tempel said she worries the move by the district will hurt student learning if they feel unsafe.
"If you don't let me have a rainbow in my classroom, and my student has two moms, or if I had a rainbow sign in my class, and then it was removed, what is that telling that student?" she said. "And how is that student expected to be able to learn under those conditions?"
Jana Goodman, a parent to kids in the district, is a member of the Alliance for Education in Waukesha. She called the song ban a "politically motivated" decision.
"The school district of Waukesha exists where we've recently elected a school board that only serves a certain political interest and are voting in policy that is not inclusive, that is anti-inclusive actually," Goodman said.
"We are seeing the results of that. Every couple of months something is happening where we're going viral for one decision or another," she continued.
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Dave Dringenburg said as a parent to multiple kids in the district, he "sees no issue with the song."
"There are quite a few parents and students and teachers and community members who see the district having a perceived bias against students that are LGBTQ+," Dringenburg said.
The school board was not involved in the decision, according to the statement from the district. But Goodman said they, too, should take some responsibility.
"Neither can wash their hands of this because the school board voted in the controversial sign and materials policy," she said. "And now administration is pointing to that policy as the reason behind the banning of this song."
WPR previously reported the district last year began removing gay pride flags and flyers from schools.
Tempel of Heyer Elementary said the district has seen a number of changes over the last two years.
"We've created a whole culture of doubt and confusion and nervousness and somewhat fear because people are afraid that someone will make a complaint against them," she said, adding they are no longer allowed to wear rainbow lanyards, pins that say "safe space" or anything about the Black Lives Matter movement.
"If my opinion is not the same as yours, or my value system is not the same as yours, how do I know what you will think is controversial?" Tempel said.
Asked to find an alternative, the music teacher landed on the Muppets' "Rainbow Connection." It was also banned but later accepted after pushback from parents and the Alliance for Education in Waukesha.
Tempel said the district has not offered any specific reasons for the ban, but "the only common thread between those two songs was the word rainbow."
"'Rainbow Connection' will be performed as part of the upcoming first grade music concert along with other pieces of music. This entire matter has been reviewed and the outcomes are fully supported by the Superintendent," the district said in its statement.
Tempel said the first-graders will perform the song along with "It's a Small World" and the Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun," among others, at the concert this May.