Unhappy parents protest Halloween activity in school

Sunday, October 12, 1997

Like a ghoul that rises from its grave in one of those awful
horror movies, the Halloween controversy just won't go away. Every
year we get calls from parents angry about Halloween in the public
schools. And every year we hear from school officials defending
their Halloween activities.

The number of parents unhappy about Halloween seems to be growing.
The first objectors may have been conservative Christians, but
others have joined the fray. More and more parents don't just
want to opt their kids out of Halloween, they want to kill it
off altogether.

Maybe it's time for public schools to take a fresh look at Halloween.
After all, would education suffer if Halloween disappeared?

Yes, I know. Halloween is popular with many kids (and good for
the economy). But is that reason enough to celebrate the holiday
in school, especially when it offends so many people?

Administrators usually respond to complaints about Halloween
by allowing parents to excuse their children. This is a good policy,
but it doesn't work too well when Halloween is pervasive. A Muslim
parent (who wants to opt her kids out of Halloween) told me this
week that the activities in her district go on for days: The kids
read Halloween stories, do Halloween art projects, organize Halloween
games, parties and even parades.

It is even more difficult for schools to respond when parents
want to get rid of Halloween for everybody. Teachers who are told
that a Halloween celebration promotes the occult or fosters the
Druid religion get defensive about activities they regard as simply
fun and games for kids.

Legally, there's little chance that a court will rule Halloween
activities in public schools unconstitutional. For First Amendment
purposes, the fact that Halloween has religious roots or connotations
doesn't make the cultural celebration of it in school an establishment
of religion.

But just because Halloween may be legal doesn't mean it's a good
idea. In addition to religious objections, some parents are increasingly
disturbed by the violent and ugly behavior now associated with
this date. There's more going on than the “trick or treat”
we knew as kids.

So what should schools do about Halloween? At the very least,
make sure that parents can opt their children out. Religious objections
must be taken very seriously. And then, tone it down. The time
could be better spent doing other things. Ask those parents who
insist on costume parties and parades to organize them as after-school
events for students who want to participate.

But if you're thinking of completely eliminating Halloween in
your school, wait until November. Canceling traditions, even silly
ones, at the last minute makes a lot of people unhappy. Once Oct. 31st has come and gone, call together parents and teachers
with a range of views about Halloween, and begin to explore alternatives
that might satisfy everyone. For example, many schools now substitute
harvest festivals or similar celebrations for Halloween. Kids
still dress up, celebrate and have fun—without the controversy.

Whatever schools do, they shouldn't ignore parental concerns
about Halloween, especially those motivated by religious convictions.
Instead of digging their heels in to defend Halloween, the schools
should turn this potential conflict into an opportunity for dialogue.