For schools, Halloween isn't what it used to be With parents' concerns in mind, some are making other plans


Odenton Elementary School celebrates Halloween with no apologies.

But today, some other schools are having "fall festivals" instead of Halloween, to avoid offending parents who say it's a pagan holiday. Children dress up as bugs in the name of science. Or as storybook characters in the name of reading. Or in suits and ties for career day.

Odenton Elementary, in Anne Arundel County, goes right ahead and calls it Halloween. Everyone in the school parades in costume across the street to the senior citizen center.

"Children at this age, they don't know about all the things adults believe in or don't believe in," said Alice Mosca of Gambrills, whose daughter is in third grade at Odenton.

"They have their child things they need to do, and if we start taking all those away from them, they get more and more adult. That's not what it's supposed to be," she said.

Throughout the Baltimore area, school officials leave it to the principal to decide how to handle Halloween, and the practice varies according to the community.

Some schools have abandoned Halloween celebrations, generally in deference to objections from Christians who believe it is a pagan holiday.

"I wouldn't object to Bible characters and animals, but most of the children take it too far and dress like Freddy Krueger," the horrifying killer in the "Nightmare on Elm Street" movies, said parent Rainey Taylor of Silver Run in Carroll County. "The origin of Halloween is about Druids and demons. Our kids are scared enough as it is."

Other parents dislike the gore and violence some of the costumes depict, even if they don't share Ms. Taylor's religious concerns.

And some teachers and principals complained that the Halloween celebrations steal time from learning.

Principals say most parents don't mind Halloween, but that they need to be sensitive to those who do object.

"I get complaints no matter what we do, and I usually get them after the fact," said Robert Bruce, principal of Manchester Elementary School in Carroll County.

Most of the schools have little or no Halloween celebrations in that conservative county, or they find another theme for their late October parties.

William Winchester Elementary School in Westminster dropped its Halloween parade two years ago. Kindergarten teacher Pam Hildenbrand came back this fall with a monarch butterfly parade. The children hatched monarchs in their classroom, set them free to migrate to Mexico, and celebrated earlier this month the way Mexican children mark the arrival of the migratory butterflies -- by dressing up as butterflies and handing out treats to the rest of the school.

It wasn't Halloween, but it was close enough for the children.

Last year, Manchester Elementary had a Halloween obstacle course in the gym for physical education classes. Parent volunteers dressed as witches and the like, put up spooky decorations and played eerie music.

"This year, it's a 'Fall Harvest obstacle course,' " Mr. Bruce said. -- "They're all dressed up as farmers."

Mr. Bruce said he believes he has finally hit a happy medium, but it wasn't by accident -- and the steps he followed show the lengths to which principals go to keep all factions satisfied.

It started with a recommendation from the Parent Teacher Association executive committee. "They wanted to see more of a full-fledged Halloween," Mr. Bruce said. "But that's just one segment of our parents."

So he asked his teachers to devise celebrations appropriate to each age group.

They came up with three parties: A parade and costumes for kindergartners and first graders, reminding parents to keep the costumes appropriate and not too scary; an insect day for the second-graders, who dressed Friday as their favorite bugs and ate insect-shaped food; and a harvest festival for the third- to fifth-graders with activities and snacks.

Some Howard County schools also convene committees to address the sensitive issue of holidays.

At Longfellow Elementary School in Columbia, the PTA did that last year, and most of its recommendations were accepted into school policy by the Building Leadership Team of teachers, administrators and parents.

"I think they decided to convene a committee just to make sure they gave every viewpoint in the community a chance to be heard," said Principal Allan Olchowski.

Last year, Longfellow changed the school mascot from the Indians to the Eagles, to be sensitive to Native Americans.

"We just try to keep it sensible and safe," he said of Halloween.

Dr. Olchowski sent home instructions to parents that students who come in costume today are not to bring sharp, pointy or otherwise dangerous accessories. A child can come in the popular Ninja outfit, but he'll have to leave the sword at home.

Halloween is less an issue in Baltimore and Baltimore County.

Schools in Baltimore County celebrate Halloween, if they want, with the only direction from the central office being to avoid anything overtly religious or anti-religious, said spokesman Charles Herndon.

Baltimore public schools also let principals decide about Halloween. Mariale Hardiman at Roland Park Elementary and Middle School keeps it minimal, preferring not to waste instructional time.

"Most of the parents of the younger children appreciate having ++ some kind of little party," she said, because they're worried about the safety of trick-or-treating. Only the primary grades at Roland Park celebrate.

Schools often keep some semblance of Halloween only for the kindergartners, such as at Jarrettsville Elementary School in Harford County.

"Most of our classroom teachers do almost nothing with it," said Principal Gerry Mack. He said he believes the community would object to spending any more instructional time on Halloween.

"It's hard enough to keep the kids on task without saying, 'Boys and girls, we're going to have a party this afternoon!' " he said.

"The children are so geared up for Halloween and so hyper, that we don't need to encourage that atmosphere in the school."

Odenton Principal Barbara San Gabino sees it differently.

"As a parent, I found that next to Christmas, Halloween was the most exciting time of the year for children, and we just like to keep that excitement," Ms. San Gabino said.

"It's social learning," she said.

Still, for a lot of educators, Halloween just isn't worth the time.

Curtis Schnorr, principal at Friendship Valley Elementary School in Westminster, said that after schools tried to limit costumes to the end of the day, some students would arrive at 8:30 a.m. in Halloween dress.

"There's no possible way anybody can learn anything when you're sitting next to someone dressed in green make-up," he said.

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