One autumn, Tami Scott’s children celebrated Octoberfest at school instead of Halloween.
The next year, one child’s teacher came to school dressed like the grim reaper.
Now, the Rathdrum woman is asking the Lakeland School District to develop consistent guidelines for how it celebrates holidays. And a cauldron of controversy is simmering in several school districts about whether Halloween is trick or treat.
“Some people are full out for Halloween and are pushing for their side, and some people are fully against it and pushing for that,” Scott said. “In my opinion, there needs to be a middle ground.”
That’s what school districts nationwide have tried to achieve to be more sensitive to different lifestyles and religions. Some, like Post Falls parent volunteer Carla Naccarato-Sinclair, prefer a policy that includes other religious celebrations, like Hanukkah or Kwanza, when the student population reflects such diversity.
“I believe all our holidays are part of our tradition, our culture,” Naccarato-Sinclair said. “We may not have a lot of the Jewish faith in Idaho, but if we did, we should reflect that.”
Others schools downplay religious significance of holidays by having harvest or spring celebrations instead of Halloween, Thanksgiving and Easter parties. In St. Maries, holiday parties aren’t allowed because they waste academic time.
Some concern about Halloween stems from resentment about the way religion has been removed from Christmas in school celebrations, Scott said.
“They feel if we can’t have Jesus in Christmas how come they can have witches at Halloween? Many people feel Halloween is a religious holiday for the occult, and they don’t want anything to do with that,” Scott explained.
It’s not just Christians voicing concern. There are Muslim and Jewish families who don’t celebrate Halloween, either. At Potlatch, the Halloween parade was discontinued when staff noticed some children despondent because their families couldn’t afford costumes. Angry parents dressed in Halloween costumes picketed the superintendent’s office when he announced the decision.
Others, like Scott, are concerned about the violence associated with Halloween.
“Do we want to teach our little kids to be afraid at school?” she asked.
The Coeur d’Alene school district’s policy bans violent costumes as well as costumes that include toy weapons. Children dressed as pirates must go sans swords, for example. Children also may opt out of Halloween celebrations.
Coeur d’Alene Curriculum Director Hazel Bauman said many parents feel some of the Halloween marketing is macabre, violent and just not positive.
“So let’s instead have costumes that are fun and really center on the lighthearted part of Halloween, not the nasty part.”
Administrators don’t need to fret the legality of celebrating Halloween, said Charles C. Hayes, a Vanderbilt University authority on religious liberty in the public schools.
“There’s no need to worry whether by celebrating the holiday you are establishing the religion of the Druids,” Haynes wrote in the American School Board Journal this month.
But Haynes cautions districts against making it an academic lesson. Bauman agrees. Coeur d’Alene teachers aren’t encouraged to discuss religion, even comparatively, until students reach the ninth grade, she said.
“It’s tough for a child to make that distinguishing call between ‘Is my teacher saying this is good or is she just teaching me about it?”’
A more innocuous harvest festival - what Scott wants at Lakeland - is the direction in which more school districts are moving.
“That takes the connotation off the things people are concerned with, but kids can still dress up in costumes to celebrate the changing of summer to fall,” Post Falls Superintendent Richard Harris said.
School districts have to be sensitive and tolerant of a variety of viewpoints, he added.
“I try not to have positions that are going to be red flags for individuals.”
Scott, who watched a similar battle unfold in San Diego four years ago, said she tries to avoid framing the debate as a religious one, since that approach seems to erode all holidays.
“I don’t want to lose Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas,” Scott said. “They’ve lost all those things in California.”
Naccarato-Sinclair, an Idaho native, noted that in her 10 years of involvement at Post Falls, it has rarely been Idahoans pushing for these changes.
“I resent the very small minority who come in and change everything, because the majority of us are silent,” she said.
If parents don’t want their children to participate, they can attend alternative activities, Naccarato-Sinclair said, but they don’t have to ruin the fun for everyone.
“These were things that were of great enjoyment to me when I grew up, and I want my children to have that, too. I don’t see any evil in it.”
While Scott maintains she just wants middle ground at Lakeland, she recognizes that some will think she’s a radical spoiler for raising the issue.
“I see their point,” Scott said. “They have grown up with this and don’t see anything wrong with it.”
Certainly that’s the how parents at Worley Elementary School feel. They bring students’ younger siblings to the school-time Halloween parade down Main Street. It’s a community affair - fire engines block the street and local businesses set up in residents’ yards to dole out candy.
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MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: WHAT NEXT The Lakeland School District will unveil its new guidelines at its October 13 board meeting.