After their school district canceled all Halloween festivities this year because of its “diverse” student body, some parents are pushing back, declaring in an online petition, “These are our American customs and traditions and we should not have to give them up because others find them offensive!”
The parents, of the Connecticut city of Milford, learned about the plan to cancel parades and costume wearing at its eight elementary schools through a letter sent home from principals last week. The letter said the decision “arose out of numerous incidents of children being excluded from activities due to religion, cultural beliefs, etc.,” according to the Connecticut Post. Any classroom celebrations, it continued, would be “fall themed, not Halloween, and food is not an option.”
The Milford superintendent’s office did not return a call for comment from Yahoo Parenting. But Jim Richetelli, chief operations officer for the Milford Public Schools, told the Connecticut Post, “Milford Public Schools do have many children from diverse beliefs, cultures and religions. The goal is for all children to feel comfortable and definitely not alienated when they come to school.” Other seasonal activities will provide an opportunity for getting into the Halloween spirit, he added, including a PTA “Trunk or Treat” event that welcomes kids in costumes.
Milford is far from the first town to take the holiday out of its schools. Last year, another district in Connecticut did the same, citing religious diversity and concerns over inappropriate costumes, while a New Jersey district that attempted to cancel Halloween reversed its decision a day later. In 2013, towns in Pennsylvania and Ohio also canceled in-school Halloween celebrations, for reasons ranging from general “safety” to religious diversity and even fear of peanut allergies.
The bans fueled heated arguments in all instances — even death threats in one — over the loss of tradition. In response to the Milford decision, more than 560 individuals have added their names to a Change.org petition, called “Bring back our AMERICAN traditions to our schools!”
Local mom Rebecca Lilley started the petition, which states, “I was shocked to find out our annual Halloween parade has been discontinued throughout our district. This is just not right… Growing up in America there are certain traditions and celebrations we have become accustomed to celebrating at home and during school!” She continues, “I’m so tired on my kids missing out on some of the things we all got to do as children and are some of the greatest childhood memories I have due to others saying they find it offensive.”
While some have been speaking out in favor of the Milford decision — including Facebook commenters who note, “You are there to learn, not have parades,” and “Kids can wear costumes on their own time” — those signing the petition echo a desire to keep American traditions alive. Many veer into anti-immigrant territory by blaming “newcomers” for ruining the fun.
“People coming to a new country should adapt to its ways or not partake in its traditional events. The host country should not have to change to accommodate newcomers,” noted one supporter. Wrote another, “This is getting out of hand, the American people need to take back our country!!!” Another signer declared, “I believe we should continue with our country’s American traditions!! If you are offended, return to your country and customs!!”
These types of reactions, according to Charles Haynes, vice president of the Newseum Institute/Religious Freedom Center in Washington D.C., show how “this cultural fight is not necessarily about Halloween — it’s more about whose schools these are, what kind of country this is, and how ‘we shouldn’t let the minority shut down our fun.’” Haynes, also a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center and the creator of nationally distributed consensus guidelines on religious liberty in schools, says that the issue of Halloween in public schools has been “a kind of roller-coaster issue” for at least 20 years.
Traditionally, Haynes explains, the pressure to take Halloween out of schools came from Christian conservatives, who saw the holiday as evil — not to mention an affront, considering that Jesus, in the form of prayer and Christmas, is so often banned from schools. But these days, he says, the decision often comes from wanting students with other religious backgrounds (Muslim, Orthodox Jewish, Jehovah’s Witness, for example) to not feel excluded by a holiday, albeit secular, that not everyone observes. And that’s where resentments can arise.
“America now, for the first time in history, is no longer a Protestant nation, and that kind of change, which has been building, leaves people feeling like they’re losing their cultural America, like it’s being stripped away,” Haynes explains. In addition, he says, “These days, people are looking for a reason to be angry — particularly at schools. There’s a lot of backlash to the change in America, particularly with Islam in the forefront of controversy.”
Still, he maintains, the movement away from in-school Halloween festivities is positive. “It’s a good trend,” he says — especially since religion is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to related issues here. “There are so many layers to this, as Halloween also has become a bit of a free-for-all, with kids dressing up as characters too violent…or sexual, and not appropriate for schools.” In response, he’s found, “what many districts have done, at the very least, is dial it back, which takes a lot of pressure off.” So instead of a two-week lead-in, featuring pumpkin-themed counting lessons and witch-based art projects, for example, celebrations have at least been more concentrated — if not stripped of Halloween references altogether.
“Schools are trying now to figure out how to create the narrative,” with some asking kids to dress up as their favorite literary characters, or hosting harvest festivals. “That approach is really kind of win-win,” Haynes says. “Because it’s hard for me to see why a school district would cling to Halloween in the face of all this.”
(Photo of school kids in costume, top, by Andy Cross/Getty Images)