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Trick nor treat: Why a New Jersey school gave up Halloween

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Melanie Stetson

(Read caption) Principal Dr. Javier Montanez takes a photo of a teacher with some of her kids during a costume party for students from kindergarten to second grade at Leviton Dual Language Elementary School in the evening, on October 30, 2013 in Providence, Rhode Island. Dr. Montanez has been principal here for three years.

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In the name of inclusion, there won’t be any tricks nor treats this year for a northern New Jersey elementary school.

Seth Boyden Elementary School will not host any Halloween celebrations, principal Mark Quiles told parents in a letter last week, because of cultural sensitivities surrounding the holiday. This means students will still be allowed to trick-or-treat and partake in other festivities outside of school; the school itself, for the first year, will not be hosting any special Halloween activities.

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As the Maplewood community is diverse with many different cultures, including some that don’t celebrate Halloween, the letter says, abstaining from school-sponsored Halloween activities would prevent the exclusion of such students.

Last year, 20 percent of the student body didn’t participate in the school’s Halloween events, according to Mr. Quiles and two Parent Teacher Association co-presidents for the school.

“As we all know, one of the strengths of Seth Boyden is that we are such a diverse community, with many cultures represented, and that we truly value each one,” the letter says. “In the past, in-school celebrations of Halloween have made many of our students feel left out – last year 120 students did not participate in the in-school Halloween celebrations, and many other families kept their children home on that day.”

With this letter, the school is not canceling any planned activities. “It was simply a courtesy notice,” the school district’s spokeswoman Suzanne Turner tells The Christian Science Monitor.

According to Ms. Turner, the director of communications for the South Orange and Maplewood school district, Seth Boyden educators in previous years used to ask parents for their children’s permission to participate in Halloween. For parents who opt out, their kids would be excused from the Halloween parties in class.

“For the school community, it was divisive, unnecessarily,” Turner says. “Children are sad to be taken out of classrooms, seeing all their classmates in costumes and getting candy.”

In an op-ed published in Green Village, a local news site, PTA co-president Amelia Riekenberg clarifies that the decision to pass up Halloween activities was not prompted by the parents who opt out.

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“They are, by and large, a silent minority. They quietly keep their children home or return the form asking that their child not participate in the Halloween activities,” she writes. “On the other hand, I have escorted children out of a classroom getting ready to celebrate Halloween (with candy and other fun items), and I have witnessed quiet, sad faces.”

Turner says the school district’s administrators and superintendent are all supportive of Quiles and Seth Boyden’s decision to forgo Halloween. The five other elementary schools in the district, however, will continue to celebrate the holiday.

Seth Boyden has received negative feedback since the news story gained national attention, she says, but only from those outside of the community.

Earlier this month, a Connecticut school canceled its annual Halloween parade, but after local community members created a petition on change.org in protest of the decision, school administrators overturned the ban and reinstated the festivities. In the past few years, there have been a handful of isolated cases in which public schools decide to abstain from Halloween. The reasoning behind each case differs. For Sporting Hill Elementary School in Pennsylvania, for instance, costumes were banned for safety in 2013. Another school in Pennsylvania cited concerns about peanut allergies. 

More recent examples have tended to deal with the concept of inclusion. There are a handful of religions that don’t recognize Halloween, including some sects of Christianity, Jehovah's Witnesses, Muslims, and Orthodox Jews. But religious diversity was not the culprit of canceling Halloween, Riekenberg writes.

“Diversity did not lead to the decision not to have a Halloween parade in school. Unity led to this decision – everyone counts, or nobody counts.”