EVANSTON, Ill. — Nejra Bajric’s son, a second grader at Lincoln Elementary School in Evanston, waits until his class Halloween party to show off his best costume. This year he’s planning to be Miles Morales, the new Spider-Man, and has a whole head-to-toe ensemble.
His best friends at school won’t see him shoot webs from his wrists though, since Lincoln, along with other Evanston elementary schools, has decided to end — or cancel, as some parents have called it — Halloween traditions during the school day: no party, no costumes, no candy.
“There were some tears,” Bajric said about her son’s reaction when she told him the news. “Every time I bring it up, he says, ‘That’s the worst; I’m just going to wear mine.’ “
Parents at Lincoln feel frustrated about the school’s decision to cease Halloween celebrations for a few reasons, including being left out of the decision-making, a lack of clarity on why the decision was made, and how the school is planning to move forward.
The heart behind the decision, according to a statement from Michelle Cooney, Lincoln’s school principal, was to honor the school’s value of equity and to be inclusive of all students within the community, particularly those who do not celebrate the holiday.
“As part of our school and district-wide commitment to equity, we are focused on building community and creating inclusive, welcoming environments for all,” said Cooney in a statement via e-mail. “While we recognize that Halloween is a fun tradition for many families, it is not a holiday that is celebrated by all members of our school community and for various reasons. There are also inequities in how we have traditionally observed the holiday as part of our school day. Our goal at Lincoln is to provide space and opportunities for all students to be part of the community — not to create an environment that may feel exclusive or unwelcoming to any child.”
Bajric said she and her husband “feel strongly” about the decision and the reasoning.
“Halloween is a cultural American holiday, and it’s being canceled because of religious groups,” she said. “We’re a Bosnia and Muslim immigrant and refugee family. Halloween, when we moved (to Chicago) from a different country, was one of the greatest things.”
Bajric, who came to Chicago from Bosnia in 1995 with her family, went to a Chicago public school for elementary school, and for her, Halloween was “a way to assimilate,” she said. Her parents worked two jobs, sometimes gone from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., she recalled, and celebrating Halloween at school was often the only taste she got of the holiday.
“I didn’t get to celebrate the other holidays,” said Bajric, who remembers Halloween at school being “the best day ever” for her. “Halloween was my way of being like the other kids. Other students from other countries (at Lincoln), they get to feel like the other kids and participate in a cultural holiday.”
While Barjic understands being sensitive to different views, cultures and religions, she said, she also feels a responsibility to stand up for those kids who may be in similar situations as she was during her childhood.
“They’re trying so hard to make everything inclusive that they’re excluding a lot of students,” she said. “They’re excluding those kids from having a Halloween, or low-income kids whose families work crazy hours.”
Information about the decision was sent to parents during the 2018-2019 school year, according to the statement from Cooney, informing parents that last school year would be the final Halloween celebration taking place during the instructional day.
“We did this a year in advance to allow our community time and space to process this change,” part of the statement said. “We acknowledge that this might feel like a loss to some.”
Even with advance notice, some parents still feel the news is fresh.
Mark Gruber, a dad of three in first, third, and fifth grades at Lincoln, has been a room parent for five years and says he missed the communication. “It’s been a big surprise this year,” he said.
Gruber says the principal and administration are “very good and very kid-focused,” yet he “couldn’t disagree more” with the staff’s decision being rooted in equity purposes.
“I don’t think that’s a good reason, that’s not a way society works,” he said. “If one kid is offended, we want to try to include that kid and come with solutions, but to say we need to change our behavior in a significant way over a Halloween celebration, it’s hard to take.”
A lot of parents were in the dark about the decision, according to both Bajric and Gruber, and they each wished parents would have been more involved to help come up with other solutions.
“If you want to be inclusive,” Gruber began, “have a conversation and get input from all members of the community. It’s very hard in public school, but it was just decided and that’s why people are so upset — it was just decided. Bring out ideas and discussion about how can we move forward that tries to meet as many needs as possible, not change (our behaviors and traditions) for the views of a few people. That’s not the way society works.”
A “Principal’s Coffee” was held recently to give parents a chance to talk about ideas for new traditions connected to Halloween. It became a broader conversation, said Jenna Porter, Lincoln’s PTA president, about “how we’re responsible for our own language.”
“Ms. Cooney shared a lot about what was her agenda for the year, how they’re doing community building, how the PTA’s involved in community building,” said Porter.
There is a lot of conscious work happening at a district level, and within the school, Porter said, to combat some of the stereotypes and views people have of each other’s races. “There’s all this work being done to take five steps forward,” she said. “That was kind of the message today.”
In lieu of a Halloween party, the students will have a “fall celebration” on Friday, Nov. 1.
Some school districts throughout Chicagoland have ended special events related to Halloween.
St. Charles Community Unit School District 303 has lessened Halloween celebrations in recent years, said spokeswoman Carol Smith, due to a variety of reasons, including an awareness of students with severe food allergies and differences in cultural beliefs. Still, many of the elementary schools in the district do have Halloween parties at the end of the day, and while some schools do not allow costumes, the ones that do have restrictions, said Smith.
In Elgin-based School District U-46, some of the elementary schools do not plan special events around Halloween since some students don’t mark the day, and the administration wants to be inclusive of all students, said Mary Fergus, director of school and community relations.
“It feels unfair to everyone,” said Bajric about the cancellation of the full Halloween activities at Lincoln. She’s fearful of what the schools will cancel next, she said, and wonders if the district is headed in the direction of no holidays to be celebrated at school altogether.
Lincoln’s choice to end Halloween-related activities was not a district decision, nor is there a district policy on the celebration of Halloween, said Melissa Messinger, director of communications for the Evanston/Skokie School District 65. “A number of our schools have moved away from traditional Halloween celebrations in recent years and a few more are implementing this year,” she said.
The district leadership team released a similar statement to Lincoln’s in support of its schools: “As part of our school and district-wide commitment to equity, we are focused on building community and creating inclusive, welcoming environments for all. While we recognize that Halloween is a fun tradition for many, it is not a holiday that is celebrated by everyone for various reasons and we want to honor that. We are also aware of the range of inequities that are embedded in Halloween celebrations that take place as part of the school day and the unintended negative impact that it can have on students, families, and staff. As a result, we support our schools that are moving away from Halloween celebrations that include costumes and similar traditions.”
“When you’re a young kid and from a different country,” said Bajric, “you want to take part to fit in with the class — that’s what it was for me at least. I’m afraid they’re going to take away the little things where kids will feel accepted.”
Gruber wonders what message the cancellation is sending to the children. While he thinks the community should be respectful of differences, he said, he doesn’t think those differences means one group is obligated to change its behavior.
“To take away (Halloween) in the name of a few people who don’t celebrate, this is completely wrong,” he said.