In the latest example of small-mindedness plaguing our educational system, schools around the country are attempting to ban costumes and candy on what is surely one of most kids’ favorite days of the year. The excuses range from vague concerns about “safety” to specific worries about food allergies to—get this—fears of breaching the wall of separation between church and state.
But whatever the motivation, the end result is the same as what Charlie Brown used to get every time he went trick-or-treating: a big old rock in the candy bag. What sort of lesson are we teaching our kids when we ban even a tiny, sugar-coated break in their daily grind (or, even worse, substitute a generic, Wicker Man-style “Fall Festival” for Halloween)? Mostly that we are a society that is so scared of its own shadow that we can’t even enjoy ourselves anymore. We live in fear of what might be called the killjoy’s veto, where any complaint is enough to destroy even the least objectionable fun.
Consider Sporting Hill Elementary School in Pennsylvania. Earlier this month, the school sent parents a note explaining that wearing Halloween costumes was was canceled because, well, you know, “safety is a top priority.” A spokesperson further explained, “We recognize that the education about, and celebration of, seasonal festivals is an important aspect of the elementary setting…[but] we must do so in a manner that is safe and appropriate for all children.” You’d think it would be easy enough to craft basic guidelines on what’s safe – only fake blood, no trailing ghost or ghoul fronds that might get tripped on– but such a simple task is apparently beyond the powers that be in Sporting Hill.
Inglewood Elementary, outside of Philadelphia, tried to go Sporting Hill two better by banning Halloween activities due to a mix of dietary and constitutional concerns. One school board member told Philly.com’s Dom Giordano that the traditional student Halloween parade was canceled out of worries “that some kids with peanut allergies might eat or come into contact with something peanut-based during the parade and related events.”
But it turns out that the school’s principal had loftier philosophical reasons for scotching the fun. “Some holidays, like Halloween,” he wrote to parents, “are viewed…as having religious overtones. The district must always be mindful of the sensitivity of all the members of the community with regard to holidays and celebrations of a religious, cultural or secular nature. The United States Supreme Court has ruled that school districts may not endorse, prefer, favor, promote or advance any religious beliefs.” Unless there’s a particularly active group of druids in the district, or the parade ends with a ritual sacrifice, it seems unlikely that there’s much to worry about.
Such wilfully obtuse reasoning may well qualify the principal for a seat on the Supreme Court, but it won him no points with parents or school district administrators. Indeed, after the former complained, the latter hung him out to dry. They explained that the principal’s letter and banning of Halloween activities was “not an accurate representation of the school district’s administrative regulation.” In fact, they stressed that the district’s schools were hosting more Halloween activities than you could shake a Pixie Stix at.
Kids in Bexley, Ohio won a similar reprieve, but only after 160 parents signed an online petition and another 30 or so packed a parent-teacher meeting. A couple of years back, parents in Springfield, New Jersey pulled off the same feat even as Portland, Oregon schools put the kibosh on Halloween. And so it goes, with Halloween bans joining pedagogical prohibitions on tag, dodge ball, and just about everything else you can imagine.
Given the heated arguments even over something as ultimately inconsequential as celebrating Halloween, it’s no wonder that enrollments at public charter schools are going through the roof. Like private schools, charters allow parents and students to choose specific schools rather than be assigned to them based on accidents of geography or residence. By matching schools and students based on shared interests and goals, a lot of the serious conflicts that have traditionally roiled schools – over the role of curricula, sports, sex education, and so much more – simply disappear like a, well, bag of Halloween candy in a young kid’s room. Of course, disagreements don’t completely disappear in schools of choice (whether public or private). But they are less frequent and less intense precisely because everyone involved can always go elsewhere.
Schools where parents, students, teachers, and school boards are mostly on the same page rather than at each other’s throats? That’s an idea that’s almost as unimaginable as banning Halloween used to be.