Costume parades, pumpkin decorations, arts and crafts ... some schools pull out all the stops when Halloween rolls around. But others are moving away from the festivities in order to promote inclusivity.
The Evanston/Skokie School District 65 in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, Ill. is one such example. On Sept. 27, interim superintendents Heidi Wennstrom and Phil Eckhart issued a statement announcing that the district would be “moving away” from Halloween celebrations.
The reasons are two-fold. As the statement below, which was provided to Yahoo Lifestyle, explained, Halloween festivities may alienate and exclude students and staffers who may not celebrate for various personal or religious reasons (as the holiday, with both its pagan roots and connection to All Saints’ Day, is seen as too Satanic for some Christians and too Christian for some Muslims and Orthodox Jews). What’s more, District 65 officials claimed, they can have an “unintended negative impact” on those who may not be able to afford costumes.
“As part of our school and district-wide commitment to equity, we are focused on building community and creating inclusive, welcoming environments for all,” the statement read. “While we recognize that Halloween is a fun tradition for many, it is not a holiday that is celebrated by everyone for various reasons and we want to honor that.
“We are also aware of the range of inequities that are embedded in Halloween celebrations that take place as part of the school day and the unintended negative impact that it can have on some students, families, and staff. As a result, we are moving away from Halloween celebrations that include costumes and similar traditions during the school day. We are confident our school communities will find new and engaging ways to build community within their schools.
“In District 65, we remain committed to equity and discontinuing current and past practices that are not in alignment with our goals. Our schools are special because of the people who are a part of them and our commitment to serving the educational needs of our students. Many of our schools have already moved away from the traditional Halloween activities during the school day and have scheduled Halloween or other seasonal activities outside of the school day.”
The announcement echoes sentiments expressed by other schools that have curbed Halloween festivities.
“We want to be inclusive of all families including those families who don’t celebrate Halloween or find purchasing a costume a hardship,” officials at Hillcrest Elementary School in Waukesha, Wis., told parents in 2017, the year it decided to host “Hat Day” instead. (The school is avoiding the issue this year by closing for a staff development day, according to its calendar.)
Meanwhile, officials at North Country Elementary in Antelope, Calif., told CBS Sacramento that low attendance was to blame for their decision to cancel Halloween events this year in favor of a “harvest festival.” In a statement, administrators cited a trend of parents keeping their children home because they don’t celebrate the holiday.
“We have consistently respected the right of families to choose to have their children participate, or not, in such celebrations,” it read. “However, when the number of students choosing to not participate becomes significant, it is incumbent on the school leadership to re-evaluate and determine if the event is truly meeting the social and academic needs of its student population.”
And Vermont’s Burlington School District raised concerns about costumes being culturally insensitive, with English Learning director of programs Miriam Ehtesham-Cating telling local news outlet WCAX that “many people are made uncomfortable by the notion that you change your identity, you turn into someone else and those somebody else' could represent cultural appropriations.” Other schools have pointed to safety issues and a focus on “educational time,” prompting many parents to express frustration with the lack of Halloween spirit. Online, critics have bashed it as a symptom of “PC” culture.
Atlanta-based dad blogger Evan Porter says that the school cancelations are “a shame.”
“I do applaud schools for thinking through issues like inclusivity and the potential for problematic costumes,” he tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “But there are better ways to handle these issues than canceling the holiday for everyone and choosing not to address those problems head-on.
“I'd rather see schools (and parents) think more creatively about how Halloween costume parades and parties could be more accessible to lower-income students, students prone to over-stimulation and religious students. I'd rather have direct and honest conversations about what kinds of costumes are inappropriate and why,” he adds. “It seems to me that banning Halloween from school just sweeps these complex and difficult issues under the rug.”
Meanwhile, Beverly DePew, a mom and real estate broker in Arkansas, tells Yahoo Lifestyle that she’s “almost disgusted” by “ridiculous” bans on Halloween at school.
“My fondest memories of my school days were the parties and events that we would partake in,” says DePew, calling it a “great opportunity for the school to teach the children about how Halloween derived, regardless of religion.”
But one mom in Millbrae, Calif., tells Yahoo Lifestyle that, as a member of the non-denominational Christian Church of Christ (or Iglesia Ni Cristo), she feels that Halloween customs “should not infiltrate learning activities.” As such, Denise (who preferred to not share her last name), will be keeping her 4-year-old son home from preschool on Oct. 31 so he won’t have to take part in a planned Halloween celebration.
“While we have brought up our beliefs to his teachers, we do believe that alternative activities/events should be held because not everyone celebrates these holidays,” she says, adding that her family also does not celebrate Christmas, Easter or Valentine’s Day for religious reasons. “They are old traditions and it should not infiltrate learning activities either. Jack-o'-lanterns, Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny shouldn't be making appearances in our children's homework unless they are learning the roots or history of these symbols from an education standpoint.”
“We haven't gone as far as considering complaining about school activities yet, as long as we can exclude him by staying home,” she adds. “However, if any of these holiday traditions make their way into his educational lessons, we are prepared to bring up the issue. We don't oppose social activities because he is not missing out on anything if he doesn't participate. But if it has a part in academics, it it's definitely cause for concern.”
As the Halloween divide grows, some schools are opting to dodge the issue by scrapping classes altogether and devoting Oct. 31 to teacher in-service days and parent-teacher conferences. Others are replacing Halloween activities with less controversial events celebrating the fall season, or allowing costumes on the condition that a strict dress code — such as bans on face paint, imitation weapons, masks or spooky or villainous references — is enforced. Another option is to host scaled-back dress-up days that encourage students to, say, wear hats or come dressed as their favorite book character without overtly mentioning Halloween.
For example, a handful of schools that are part of Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) New Jersey, a group of 14 public charter schools in Newark and Camden covering grades K-12, will instead hold “Picture Me Tomorrow,” in which students are encouraged to take inspiration from a dream career, such as a firefighter or judge.
“We had school on Halloween but we often wouldn’t have kids dress up just because not everyone celebrated it,” KIPP Newark executive director Joanna Belcher tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “So ‘Picture Me Tomorrow’ was something that everyone could engage in.”
Belcher notes that other KIPP schools host harvest-themed events or after-school “trunk or treats” and for the most part have received little pushback from parents.
“There are certainly other venues where they can dress up for Halloween, but at school we’re aligning it to our bigger overall mission and philosophy and still giving the kids the opportunity to dress up, have a fun event, have a really fun day, but also have something more meaningful and tied to our mission,” she says.
Parents and kids upset by a canceled Halloween celebration can always take heart. In 2015, schools in Milford, Conn. made national headlines when officials decided to scrap Halloween parades during school hours in favor of optional, PTA-sponsored events held after school in an effort to avoid alienating those who don’t celebrate. After parent outrage and accusations of being “un-American,” then-superintendent of schools Elizabeth Feser reversed that decision and announced that the original parades would carry on. According to the 2019-20 Milford Public Schools calendar, the Halloween parades continue to be held.
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