Some Pa. Districts Banning Halloween In Backlash
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – Hell has no fury like the wrath of community whose school Halloween celebration has been canceled.
Across Pennsylvania, local school districts have engendered the bilious disapproval of parents at news that children no longer will be allowed to show off their witches, princesses and goblins costumes.
The kibosh on Halloween, from bans on jack-olanterns and cobweb decorations in schools to canceled parties and costume parades, come amid concerns for safety, loss of instructional time and church and state issues.
The trend has parents fuming and sounding off on social media with rants about administrators attempting, yet again, to sanitize schools and strip them of fun.
“I’m really upset,” said Sue Dimoff, whose grandchildren attend Sporting Hill Elementary School, which last week sent parents a letter informing them that the annual Halloween party and parade of costumes had been canceled.
Parents were so riled up, the Mechanicsburg school news made national news.
“They want to change Christmas, Halloween, there’s no Valentine’s Day parties...they say it takes time away from instructional time. That’s a bunch of baloney,” Dimoff said. “You’re going to tell me that 20 minutes out of the whole school year will do that when you have the amount of testing they do? It’s ridiculous.”
Sporting Hill is part of the Cumberland Valley School District, which also issued a district-wide announcement a few weeks ago reiterating that Halloween festivities – including decorations – were canceled. The district permits schools to sponsor “fall festival” themed events.
Cumberland Valley Superintendent Dr. Frederick S. Withum, III, says it’s a sign of the times.
“Twenty years ago nobody ever would have thought that a principal would have to consider, as part of their training, what they would do in the event of a shooting in their building or if in the midst of an aggravated custody issue within their building in which a national amber alert is issued,” he said. “The best way to make schools safer is to continue to help them be joyful places, but we are going to have to find new ways and new procedures to ensure that this is the case.”
Much the same happened last week when Inglewood Elementary School, located in the Philadelphia suburb of Towamencin, announced its cancellation of All Hallows Eve festivities, citing concerns that the cultural holiday was “filled with religious overtones.”
Like Sporting Hill, Inglewood grabbed headlines across the country and put administrators on a fast track to quell outraged parents.
The school’s revised announcement states that teachers are allowed to have Halloween parties, but school-wide events such as costume parades must be held before or after school.
Dimoff, a former Sporting Hill teacher, says there are ways to get around obstacles, including allowing the older children to parade around the upper floor classrooms and the younger children to parade around the primary grade classrooms. Parents could attend the parties after the parade.
“I think it’s the kids that suffer,” she said. “Obviously safety is a big concern but there are ways to get around it. You don’t have to give up Halloween.”
Amid the number of school mass shootings across the country, heightened security and safety protocol at schools is understandable, but Ken Trump, president of the National School Safety and Security Services, says the current witch hunt on Halloween may have less to do with security measures and more to do with uptight parents and school administrators.
“Are we having more a dialogue because of the shootings, yes, but I think it has more to do with the fact that we have a society built around more political correctness and heighten sensitivity to adverse publicity than it is due to the fact of the shootings,” Trump said. “ We have to look at the mindset and culture...We have a generation of parents with that political correctness mindset and school administrators are responding to that.”
Trump said that given the tragic loss of life in violent shootings at schools, it’s understandable that schools would put parameters on Halloween costumes.
“You want to be able to see who’s behind those costumes and that kids are able to function during the day,” he said.
To be sure, the market is flooded with Halloween costumes that are irrefutably not age-appropriate.
“ It’s common sense,” Trump said. “That said we are also in a society of political correctness on steroids. In some school communities, you have to scratch your head and go `really?’.”
The realism of today’s costumes has the potential to inflict fear in many children, Cumberland Valley officials say. Even something as sublime as a clown costume may present fears to some children.
Trump advises schools to practice reasonable and common sense supervision practices, including restrictions on costumes and doing background checks on parent volunteers, much the same as they do for sporting or musical events.
“I believe we still have to let kids be kids and not take away all of the things that kids so look forward to out of fear of a remote what if,” Trump said. “I tell people there’s going to be a little extra work when you take precautions but that comes with the territory when you are responsible for supervising children.”
Cumberland specifically sites safety concerns, its policy of inclusiveness for all traditions and protection of instructional time.
District spokeswoman Tracy Panzer said it is incumbent on schools to sponsor seasonal events in a manner that is safe and appropriate for all children.
“We recognize that the chance to dress up allows students the opportunity to express individual creativity and imagination,” Panzer said. “Therefore, we provide dress-up opportunities throughout the year that are tied to instructional components of the classroom.”
Such opportunities, she said, include Read Across America Week when students are encouraged to dress as one of their favorite Dr. Seuss character.
The scrutiny on school Halloween policies couldn’t come at a more opportune time, says religious liberties scholar Charles C. Haynes.
For starters, the loss of Halloween from the school calendar is no great loss, said Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center of the Freedom Forum in Vanderbilt University. Couple that with the fact that a growing number of families object to the iconic - if innocuous - images of the holiday.
“I do think there’s too much of it in public schools,” Haynes said. “I think Halloween got out of hand even before the objections of it got out of hand. It’s because it’s an easy way out. It’s fun for kids. But it just grew into math lessons using witches ...at some point the message to people who have religious objections is you can’t opt out unless you want to hurt your child’s education.”
That has the potential of raising a First Amendment issues, he said. Parents have the constitutional right to object to school activities and instruction on religious grounds; and schools must find reasonable and feasible ways to accommodate religious objections. The problem, Haynes said, is that Halloween is so pervasive in some schools, parents who object may feel they have no way to opt out.
Under the most stringent definitions, some parents could view Halloween events in schools as an imposition of religion on their children.
“If you can’t have Jesus in December, why can we have witches in October,” Haynes said. “I understand that claim and understand why people see it that way.”
Granted, Haynes can’t imagine a court of law upholding such a charge, unless a school were making Halloween parties religious.
“Right now school officials should be sensitive that for many people witches, ghosts and demons have religious connotations, however sanitized they have become in culture,” he said. “For these people, they are in fact religious implications.”
Determined to allow their children to enjoy some seasonal fun, Sporting Hill parents have organized their own Halloween festival, which takes place Friday night at the school’s soccer field.
Across the region, other schools have no problem with little goblins having fun for an afternoon. Paxtang Elementary in the Central Dauphin School District, for example, will once again this year, allow its students to parade in their finest Halloween get-ups.
West Shore School District spokesman Ryan Argot said the district has not changed its policy on Halloween, and that schools are permitted to decide whether they will or not celebrate.
For now Dimoff is satisfied not only that her grandchildren will have a little Halloween fun on Friday, but that Withum replied to her letter appealing that Halloween be reinstated in the schools.
“I can understand him not being able to do anything with the costumes at this point but he said he would look into it for next year and have a serious discussion,” she said. “ He seemed to be sincere.”