WASHINGTON – Halloween is no longer welcome in some Harford County schools, where pictures of witches, goblins and scarecrows no longer hang from the walls.
“We do everything we can to make sure that Halloween, per se, isn’t celebrated,” said Don Morrison, the spokesman for Harford County Public Schools.
Harford’s response is just one example of the way Maryland school systems tiptoe around traditional Halloween images and activities, in order to be more inclusive and please those parents who find the holiday offensive.
In Harford, that means an unwritten policy that discourages classroom celebrations of Halloween. In Washington County, the emphasis is on autumn festivals and parades of students in the costume of their favorite literary characters. In rural Wicomico County, celebrations focus more on the harvest than on ghosts and goblins.
The most common replacement for a traditional Halloween celebration is a “fall festival,” which lets students dress in costume but does not carry any sort of religious connotation.
Neither the state Department of Education nor the state Parent Teacher Association has an official policy on school Halloween celebrations, but the national PTA recommends that parents, teachers and administrators all be involved in the decision on the holiday.
“Parents are often left out of these decisions and they should have a voice,” said Patty Yoxall, a spokeswoman for the national PTA. “It’s more an issue of local control than district policy.”
It was parental concern over the occult that led Howard County schools to begin to question school Halloween celebrations, said Patti Caplan, a county schools spokeswoman. It grew out of parents’ concerns a few years ago about a book in a school library on the occult.
“Parents thought that promoting Halloween focused on the occult,” said Caplan.
She said the book remains in the library, but parents and the PTA now make decisions about school Halloween celebrations and Howard County school officials encourage children to wear non-traditional Halloween costumes.
“(The schools) each respond to the wishes of their parent group,” said Caplan.
“Overall most schools do have some sort of Halloween celebration, but we encourage local schools to alert parents to be sensitive in their choice of costume,” she said.
For some schools in rural counties like Wicomico, Halloween has never really replaced the more traditional fall or harvest celebrations.
“It’s just the way the county has always been,” said Mark Bowen, principal of Buckingham Elementary in Berlin, where students have a Harvest Social.
Buckingham students do not miss out on all the fun of Halloween, because they get to dress in costume monthly, said Bowen. Children read books on a different theme each month and then, on Spirit Day, they dress as their favorite character from their books, he said.
One Caroline County school uses that method to avoid Halloween celebrations.
At Ridgely Elementary, children read certain books throughout October and then dress up as their favorite character at the end of the month, said Principal Susan Piavis.
“Everyone can celebrate. We’re not celebrating a holiday but doing a learning experience,” said Piavis.
Some schools in Washington County have fall parades that emphasize aspects of the season instead of celebrating Halloween. The festivals vary for each schools, but children typically dress in costume and parade their outfits to the parents, said Donna Messina, county schools spokeswoman.
She said the county has never received complaints from parents about Halloween, but school officials believed that fall parades create a more inclusive atmosphere.
“I think it was a wise decision,” said Messina.
Somerset County schoolchildren are allowed children to dress up on Halloween, even though they are encouraged to wear costumes not related to the spooky traditions of the holiday, said Leo Lawson, the county school’s spokesman.
“I can see why parents are opposed,” to the traditional Halloween festivities, Lawson said. “There are certain connotations to Halloween, and we are a somewhat conservative area.”
While the students are allowed to dress up, however, Lawson said parties are discouraged during school time. Classes are too busy with schoolwork to spend a day celebrating Halloween, especially since Somerset county schools are attempting to raise test scores, he said.
“People want kids on task. The most important thing is to have kids spend as much time on work as possible,” said Lawson.