East Lyme school cancels Halloween parade, many districts scale back activities

An East Lyme elementary school is doing away with its long-standing tradition of holding a Halloween parade and letting students wear costumes in school, a move that administrators say is prompted by safety concerns and a desire to be more inclusive of all students.

The Lillie B. Haynes School told parents on Wednesday that classroom celebrations will continue, but focus on the theme of fall, rather than Halloween.

But the East Lyme students won't be the only ones leaving their costumes at home this year.

Many schools across the region haven't celebrated Halloween during the school day for years, except for small celebrations for the youngest students, or after-school activities organized by parent-teacher organizations. Some schools participate in fall-themed festivities, rather than Halloween.

Some school officials say that costumes can be distracting or that celebrating Halloween is simply not part of the school culture.

And a rash of clown hoaxes this year has some districts either banning or considering a ban on all clown costumes.

In an Oct. 19 letter to parents, the principal of the Lillie B. Haynes School in Niantic, Melissa DeLoreto, said: "With increasing societal safety concerns, the number of adults who attend this event, some in costumes, poses a potential safety threat."

"Also, in the past students have been excluded from participating due to religion, cultural beliefs, etc.," she added. "We believe school day activities must be inclusive for all students and we must be sensitive in regards to holidays and celebrations of religious, cultural or secular nature."

Amy Drowne, East Lyme's assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction, and assessment, said the school district is focusing this year on aligning its three elementary schools. The other two elementary schools — along with the middle and high schools — have not been celebrating Halloween for years.

Fall-themed classroom celebrations are more aligned with the district's curriculum, she said.

Drowne said the school district fosters an inclusive learning environment, which means respecting the cultural and religious beliefs of all students.

She further acknowledged safety concerns, as people seem to be more "on edge" with reports over creepy clowns this year.  

She said that every town in the state is dealing with a diverse student population, and each year school districts work on new ways to respect their students.

For example, schools can use parent-teacher organizations to host holiday-based events, if parents are interested, rather than incorporating those events into the curriculum.

"I would say it’s a trend across the state to be more respectful to students and their families and honor not only their culture, but their belief system," Drowne said. "We try to get better at that every year."

Drowne pointed out that schools districts are expected to be well-versed in diversity training and cultural competence, with an increased awareness of that over the past 10 to 15 years. In addition, curriculum standards, revised within the past few years, have also focused on a more global understanding of issues.

All this may affect how school districts think about holidays, she explained.

Drowne said DeLoreto — who became principal of Lillie B. Haynes this year — has done a great job of addressing the concerns of parents who disagreed with the decision to cancel the Halloween Parade. DeLoreto explained to them the administration and the staff's concerns and offered parents the opportunity to become involved in PTO-led events for the holidays.

Drowne added that school officials respect that some people may disagree with the decision.

Mike Dugan, one of the parents opposing the decision, said by email that the administration "decided to sacrifice a fun East Lyme tradition on the altar of Political Correctness."

He said he believes there are already adequate safety precautions. He said he supports inclusion, but the decision ruins an event that most kids enjoy to appease a very small segment who choose not to participate.

"Let our kids be kids," he added. "Let them enjoy Halloween."

For Waterford schools, Halloween has been a minor event for at least the past several years, according to Waterford superintendent Thomas Giard.

Giard said the school year has simply become busier, and teachers and principals prefer to devote the days around Halloween to typical school activities.

"They might do a craft or something like that," he said. "The vibe I get from our principals is that the the days are precious." 

At Waterford High School, Giard said students occasionally take the opportunity to dress up, but staff members are deliberating over whether to allow clown costumes this year.

"They don't want to spook any (younger) kids with all the clown stuff going on," he said.

This year, Robert E. Fitch High School in Groton specifically banned clown costumes.

In Groton, elementary students don't wear costumes except for kindergartners, with the arrangement varying by school.

At Claude Chester Elementary School, kindergarten children may dress up as a character from a book, and students in grades 1 through 5 wear orange and black, or fall colors.

At Mary Morrisson Elementary School, children don’t wear costumes but the school holds a Harvest Wellness Day, where children wear a sports jersey and have a fitness walk. At Pleasant Valley Elementary School, kindergarten students dress up in Halloween costumes and parade inside the school to show their costumes to students in the upper grades.

Both middle schools in Groton prohibit masks that hide students’ faces. Carl C. Cutler Middle School uses Halloween as a student council fundraiser in which students pay 50 cents to wear a costume.

Except for the short parade of kindergarten students, costumes haven’t been part of Groton schools for a long time, Superintendent Michael Graner said.

“It’s really disruptive, and costumes that may be protruding like a ballerina and a tutu, it tends to be a bit disruptive to the learning environment,” he said. “And Halloween is associated with sugary treats and we don’t need kids having more (of those), that’s for sure.”

Students go home to parties and trick-or-treating after school, and school time should focus on teaching and learning, Graner said.

Some schools are focused on fall-themed activities.

Anne Hogsten, principal of Gales Ferry/Juliet W. Long School, hosts a spirit day during which students and staff are invited to wear fall colors. Classrooms host age-appropriate activities connected to the season and curriculum.

Lyme-Old Lyme Superintendent Ian Neviaser said the school district doesn't hold any Halloween celebrations during the school day and students don't dress up in costumes.

"It's just not part of the culture here," Neviaser said.

In Old Lyme, young children participate in the evening in the longstanding tradition of parading down Lyme Street in costumes behind a fire truck. There is also a Halloween Party at the Lymes' Youth Service Bureau before the parade.

Preston Superintendent John Welch said that save for a kindergarten "Hat Parade," at Preston Veterans Memorial School, the district does nothing else to celebrate Halloween.

Norwich Superintendent Abby Dolliver said the district never made a rule about how schools should treat Halloween.

“With any holiday, there are a lot of different cultures, and allergies and stuff," she said. "And the PTOs wanted to take it on for evening activities for families, so we don’t want to interfere with that.”

k.drelich@theday.com 

Day Staff Writer Claire Bessette, Nate Lynch, Martha Shanahan, and Deborah Straszheim contributed to this article.

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