Halloween no longer a staple in schools, in Lawrence and elsewhere

When Hillcrest Elementary canceled Halloween-themed activities this year, a bit of a dust-up ensued.

The principal said the decision came in the interest of providing more inclusive and educational activities for students. And principals at three other Lawrence public elementary schools that axed the holiday several years ago backed that up, saying the same reason motivated them.

“It was not our intent to take fun away from kids,” explained Hillcrest principal Tammy Becker, who instituted a health and wellness day, with time for fun, on Oct. 31. “We had a good day, a wonderful day.”

Not everyone within the Hillcrest community was enthusiastic about the idea, which also scrubbed Valentine’s Day. The week of Halloween, 11 Hillcrest parents penned a letter to the Lawrence school board, which was shared with the Journal-World, expressing their dismay at the decision.

But there’s nothing all that new with schools telling students to leave their capes, masks and lightsabers at home, in Lawrence and elsewhere. The Journal-World reached out to all 14 of Lawrence’s public brick-and-mortar elementary schools. Of the 11 whose leaders responded, including Hillcrest, five said they do not host Halloween-themed activities, costumed or not.

Examples of schools ditching Halloween, accompanied with public outcry, can be found all over, from California to New Jersey. According to news reports, there are various reasons: safety, loss of instructional time and concerns relating to religion and other cultures, among others.

Halloween’s falling out of favor with schools is a “fairly new trend,” said Suzanne Rice, a Kansas University professor in the School of Education’s Department of Educational leadership and Policy Studies.

And it’s a trend she’s still on the fence about.

Some reasons for sacking Halloween are better than others, she said. There are good reasons to have it and good reasons not to.

“I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer,” Rice said. “You just have to think about what’s gained and what’s lost.”

The case against

Becker described the school’s past Halloween events, a parade and party, as something that became too much to manage. She said it was an affair that often ran too long and took away instructional time, with so many kids changing in and out of costumes and parents arriving early to help.

Becker said every year some parents would take their kids out of school or insist their child participate in an alternate activity. Some families, she said, just can’t afford to provide costumes.

The three other principals — Scott Cinnamon of Cordley Elementary, Jared Comfort of Schwegler Elementary and Cris Anderson of Kennedy Elementary — cited similar reasons, with Anderson specifically raising religious and cultural concerns among students and parents.

Rice lent credence to several of these rationales. The cost of costumes for some families, she said, is a “good point.”

“You certainly don’t want to marginalize students because their parents can’t afford to buy them a costume or make them a costume,” she said.

There’s also a commercialism factor for Halloween and Valentine’s Day. Rice said it’s already nearly impossible to walk into a school and not encounter inadvertent advertising. The candy, store-bought cards and costumes that come with the two holidays only add to it.

Becker also singled out commercialism as a drawback for Valentine’s Day. Around the time of the holiday, she said, the school will focus on friendship, rather than romance, and lead lessons emphasizing literacy and making homemade cards.

The case for

Still, Rice didn’t identify any of the common reasons cited against Halloween as particular deal-breakers.

For instance, a school could provide extra costumes to some students, she said. Or when it comes to balancing instructional time with fun, elements of Halloween could be used as a platform for certain kinds of lessons.

In the letter to the school board, the 11 Hillcrest parents mourned the loss of “shared (cultural) experiences among students and parents” that Halloween would create. They said this would be valuable at Hillcrest, which, as a designated English-as-a-second language facility, is home to many international students.

“Kids really like Halloween — of course, there are a lot of things kids like that we don’t have going on in schools,” Rice said. “And some people would argue it does provide an element of cohesion, a shared tradition.

“When you ask adults to reflect on some of their happiest memories of elementary school, you’ll hear them reflect on things like Halloween.”

Fun: In and outside of school

There appears to be no doubt that fun has a place in schools, whether it involves kids wearing costumes or not.

All five Halloweenless schools said October is not without some kind of classroom party. They each described it as a sort “fall party” with miscellaneous activities. Sarah Hill-Nelson, one of the parents who wrote to the school board, said in addition to the health and wellness instructions, her child’s Hillcrest class had a “technology day” and was able to play video games on Oct. 31.

And in several of those schools, Parent Teacher Organizations have stepped in to fill the gaps. Anderson, Cinnamon and Comfort all said their respective PTOs put on their own Halloween events for students to attend in full regalia.

“We’re not taking away the opportunity to celebrate Halloween,” Cinnamon said. “There are ample opportunities in the evening, on people’s personal time.”