Rainbows and safe spaces: A tale of two districts

July 14, 2023 5:30 am
Close-Up of rainbow flag with crowd In background during LGBT Pride Parade. Getty Images.

A teacher's firing for public comments about Waukesha censoring the song "Rainbowland" and a nearby school district's ban on "safe spaces" are all part of a coordinated, Republican campaign, writes John Norcross. | Getty Images

On Wednesday, residents of Waukesha County went to bed having learned that Heyer Elementary School teacher Melissa Tempel had been terminated by the School District of Waukesha’s school board for expressing her criticism of the school administration’s decision not to allow the song “Rainbowland” to be sung by students at a school concert. They awoke the next morning to learn that, in nearby Hartland, Arrowhead’s school board had voted to prohibit “safe spaces” in school.

I attended both meetings and while the two districts are 11 miles apart, they are part of the same coordinated  campaign targeting school boards that is now in its third year in Southeast Wisconsin. Evident in these two school districts are themes seen across Waukesha County: The partisan takeover of school boards, the extension of board influence and control over what is taught and displayed in the classroom, questions of freedom of speech for teachers, policies focused on racial minorities and LGBTQ kids.

‘Rainbowland’ sits in a broader context of Republican efforts to take over school boards

First-grade teacher Melissa Tempel was placed on administrative leave in the spring of 2023. Following an investigation into whether her social media activity violated existing policy, the board voted 9-0 to terminate her employment. While the presenting issue involved song selection for an elementary school concert and the teacher’s criticism of this decision on social media, the causes go much deeper and further back in time.

The 2021 nonpartisan spring election in Wisconsin ushered in the first wave of the partisan takeover of school boards by the Republican Party of Waukesha County (RPWC) and their WISRED initiative, a project dedicated to placing conservatives in all seats of local government in the county. WISRED-backed candidates for school boards swept that election and Waukesha’s was no exception. Districts with a partisan majority on the board began the transition away from the anti-mask, anti-remote learning pandemic politics that brought them into office and moved on to waging the “culture wars” we see today.

In August, 2021 the school’s administration sent a letter to district staff with guidance on how Board Policy 2240 — Controversial Issues in the Classroom was to be enforced, saying:

“We need to ensure that what is posted in our rooms does not act as [a] barrier to any student, nor to serve as a divisive symbol among staff. Therefore, going forward, we re asking that all Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter, Thin Blue Line, Anti-racist classroom, and any other posters or materials to the such are removed from the learning environments.”  — Dr. Joseph Koch, Deputy Superintendent and Dr. James Sebert, Superintendent of Schools, School District of Waukesha

Just over three months later, a special education teacher in the district was given a one-day suspension for displaying a Pride flag in her classroom.

Screenshot via WisRed Facebook
Screenshot via WisRed Facebook. (Click on image to enlarge in a new window.)

Following the Spring Election in 2022, WISRED’s control over school districts tightened even more. Efforts to ban books, primarily ones featuring themes of diversity and inclusion, increased as did teacher resignations. On April 19, the RPWC launched its WISRED Council to “ensure collaborative conservative support,” sending out invitations the following month to board presidents across the county.

By mid-July, the School District of Waukesha was joined by Kettle Moraine School District,  which voted in favor of a similar interpretation of the professional code of conduct for their employees, applying it to Pride flags and the use of preferred pronouns in email signatures. Arrowhead’s school board focused its policy efforts on restricting the use of preferred student names and pronouns, taking inspiration from both Kettle Moraine and Waukesha, and passed Policy 651 in September 2022. Germantown and Muskego-Norway soon followed with their policies.

Screenshot of WisRed email message
Screenshot of WisRed email message. (Click on image to enlarge in a new window.)

On Nov. 22, 2022 the RPWC and WISRED held a kick-off meeting for candidates running for local office in the 2023 spring election. At the candidate planning meeting the following month, WISRED revealed its Campaign Sidekick app to help steer candidates towards reliable GOP voters, with a member of the WISRED vetting committee telling candidates, “the red dots are the [doors] you are going to knock on.” The third iteration of the partisan effort to take control of public school boards was under way.

The decisions made in March 2023 by school administrators, and the responses by students, teachers and the community, involving a song that features the word “rainbow”, need to be placed in this context. Deliberations about song choices, however mundane they might have been prior to 2022, have become politically charged because of partisan politics and associated “culture wars” in school districts.

Waukesha’s Community Response

Republican Party of Waukesha County post
Republican Party of Waukesha County Facebook post. (Click on image to enlarge in a new window.)

Nonpartisan community groups have been growing in number and influence in response to this partisan takeover in Waukesha County.

In the run-up to Melissa Tempel’s hearing in Waukesha, The Alliance for Education Waukesha put out a statement in support of the teacher and called on the community to join in a silent protest against what they saw as the school administration violating her First Amendment rights. The Alliance had previously organized support for Ms. Tempel in April following her suspension with a “Rainbowland” sing-along prior to the board meeting.

On July 11, 2023, the day before the hearing, the RPWC and an affiliated social media group, Wisconsin Achievement Partnership, put out a call to supporters to attend the meeting and “support our board.” They framed the issue not as a First Amendment matter but as an instance of an employee violating school policy and the district’s employment contract.

Wisconsin Achievement Partnership post
Wisconsin Achievement Partnership Facebook post. (Click on image to enlarge in a new window.)

At 11:00 a.m. on July 12, members from the Waukesha community assembled outside the school district’s offices for the silent protest with an estimated 140 people lined up on the sidewalk wearing black and holding placards in support of the teacher. Across the street, three members of Mercy Seat Christian Church huddled around signs that claimed “Homosexuality is a Sin” and “There are Only Two Genders.”

While the majority of those in attendance at the hearing were there to support Ms. Tempel, there were others who heeded the RPWC’s call to action. The RPWC’s grassroots outreach director, Keith Best, was there for part of the meeting as were two supporters from Ozaukee County, Scarlett Johnson and Amber Schroeder, both of whom are members of  Moms for Liberty as well as the Republican Party of Ozaukee County.

As has been reported elsewhere, following a nearly four-hour meeting, the board ultimately voted unanimously to terminate Ms. Tempel’s employment.

Waukesha’s present and Arrowhead’s future

Arrowhead draft policy screenshot
Arrowhead draft policy screenshot. (Click on image to enlarge in a new window.)

Politically, Arrowhead High School is one to two years behind the School District of Waukesha, despite having six WISRED-backed board members on a board with nine seats. From 2021 onwards, a series of GOP-aligned policies have been rushed through committee and approved by the board, sometimes in an unfinished state, focused on restricting how history is taught (Policy 333), adding undue administrative burdens to teachers in the name of “curriculum transparency” (Policy 334), and restricting what names and pronouns students and teachers are allowed to use (Policy 651). This week they added another, Policy 335, which prohibits safe spaces and sets the board up to create a procedure whereby Black Lives Matter, anti-racist, and LGBTQ flags, signs and symbols will be removed from the school. An open records request uncovered an email from a WISRED-backed board member to a constituent who was concerned that those flags would not be removed which revealed this tactic. “If the policy is approved next month,” wrote Board President Kim Schubert, “I assure you that your items of concern will be removed from the school due to the board’s procedural oversight.”

Arrowhead email via open records request. (Click on image to enlarge in a new window.)

Although WISRED-backed board members had been interested in policy like this since mid-2022, Policy 335 wasn’t formally introduced until June as a rough draft titled Flags, Signage and Divisive Propaganda. The draft policy sought to claim that the entire school was a “safe space” and that any stickers or signage suggesting a particular area was a safe space would be prohibited. Furthermore, the policy went on to say that “any flags, signage, (or) stickers” that indicate a “division of race, ideology, sexual orientation, gender preference, or political affiliations” would also be banned. Black Lives Matter, anti-racist signage and rainbows were specifically called out.

Still, after deliberating on the policy and with board members recommending the policy be referred back to committee in order to provide the opportunity to engage students, parents and teachers who had been left out of the process, the board eventually passed the policy on a 6-3 vote with all partisan board members approving it.

The Parental Bill of Rights and constraints on teacher autonomy

What we are seeing across Waukesha County is the enacting of vetoed legislation, AB963, the so-called Parents Bill of Rights, at the school district level.

Assembly Bill 963
Screenshot of post promoting Assembly Bill 963 (2021-22 legislative session). (Click on image to enlarge in a new window.)

Waukesha’s partisan-controlled school board started out by interpreting existing policy in a way that aligned with this bill, which is how they banned BLM and Pride flags in the first place. In January 2023 the board passed a resolution on “Parental Rights and Transparency” that provides a platform for future policy development. Arrowhead, in contrast, has taken a more piecemeal approach.

In both districts, these policies, policy interpretations and resolutions serve to restrict, constrain and otherwise reduce the autonomy of educators in public schools.

Policies that restrict what teachers can teach or display in their classroom remove the autonomy teachers have to not only connect the kids with the curriculum, they create a field of tripwires where educators fear anything and everything they do might be challenged.

Policies that dictate how teachers can address their students (by name or by pronoun) forces them to go against their professional training, and even their own conscience, when it comes to treating their students as the individuals they are.

Policies that fall under the heading of “curriculum transparency” are, in effect, measures giving the board surveillance capabilities over everything teachers do. Granting the board access to Arrowhead’s Canvas system, something currently reserved for teachers, students and their parents, is part of this effort and is on the list of future agenda items for the policy committee.

Finally, employee handbooks and codes of conduct serve to regulate any free speech teachers may want to exercise outside of the classroom.

Waukesha’s policy interpretations and “Parental Rights and Transparency” resolution addressed the first three. When it resulted in a teacher in the district voicing her dissatisfaction with a decision on song choice for her class, the board and administration fell back on the policies and procedures regulating teacher complaints and conduct to silence her and terminate her employment.

Screenshot via We the Parents Arrowhead School District on YouTube
Screenshot via We the Parents Arrowhead School District on YouTube. (Click on image to enlarge in a new window.)

Arrowhead now has something in place with Policies 333, 334, 335 and 651 combining with the employee handbook to reduce teacher autonomy. The right-wing activist group We the Parent Arrowhead that facilitated the WISRED board members into power as part of the takeover of the school board in 2022 featured an image of a school teacher walking while held back by red tape at the start of a YouTube video of the Arrowhead school board meeting and on social media.

Before 2021, we might have looked at that image as representing the bureaucratic and administrative burdens teachers must struggle through and overcome in order to do their jobs. The red tape would be seen as something to get rid of. Today, WISRED and groups like We the Parents Arrowhead see the red tape in a positive way — as a means of keeping teachers in line with what they believe to be conservative “morals and values.” Communities need to decide whether they are on the side of adding or removing these constraints.

We need to decide which side of the tape we are on


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John Norcross
John Norcross

John Norcross is a consultant, podcaster, and community organizer based in Oconomowoc, WI. He has spent the last 25 years working in the field of organizational design and change in Europe and North America. He also works with community change agents across the Midwest on progressive causes including education, sustainability, and local governance. His background is in political economy, with a degree in political science from Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada.