Sunday, May 26

Governor Murphy Joins School Halloween Fray in New Jersey: ‘Give Me a Break’

If you happen to attend one of the 10 schools in New Jersey’s South Orange and Maplewood school district, put away that Spiderman costume on Halloween. Or wait until after school.

Earlier this month, Dr. Ronald G. Taylor, the superintendent of the district, sent a letter to parents saying that Halloween would not be celebrated during school hours. The decision was, the letter said, an effort to promote “diversity, equity, and inclusion meaningfully.”

School districts like the one in South Orange and Maplewood have chosen to not hold Halloween celebrations in an effort to be more inclusive to students either who do not celebrate the holiday for religious reasons, or whose families cannot afford elaborate costumes.

The announcement from Dr. Taylor divided families in the district. Some fully supported the decision, pointing out that some of the elementary schools had already stopped celebrating the holiday, whereas other parents saw this as liberal good intentions going off the rails.

And then, the news found its way to the governor’s desk. On Tuesday afternoon, Philip D. Murphy stepped right into the fray, writing on X, formerly known as Twitter: “Seriously? We can’t let kids celebrate Halloween? Give me a break.”

The post sparked a media firestorm and set local parents groups on Facebook buzzing, reigniting the same tense discussion that began weeks prior with Dr. Taylor’s letter. It is unclear why Mr. Murphy decided to weigh in on the discussion now. Both towns had voted overwhelmingly for him in 2021, when Mr. Murphy became the first Democrat to be re-elected to the governor’s office in 44 years.

The debate over Halloween comes amid fraught discussions in recent years on efforts to tackle racial inequity and improve diversity in the South Orange and Maplewood schools, which have about 7,200 students. The district is in the midst of an integration plan that has changed how students are assigned to elementary schools in an attempt to reduce education segregation and improve outcomes for Black students.

Dr. Taylor wrote in a follow-up news release that the Halloween decision came after school principals were surveyed and said they “were overwhelming in favor of discontinuing Halloween celebrations in school.”

The letter acknowledged that the move might invite a backlash, but it was important, he wrote, “to building equity, fostering inclusion, and building a sense of belonging throughout our schools.”

That’s not to say there will be nothing happening on Halloween. Dr. Taylor said he expected that some elementary schools in the district would have a “Fall/Harvest Festival” on Oct. 31.

The move by the district is part of a larger movement to reframe Halloween that has gained steam in public schools in recent years, mostly related to equity and inclusion efforts.

The East Lansing public school district in Michigan, for example, announced in 2021 that it was canceling both Halloween and Valentine’s Day celebrations.

“Each year, along with the fun of Halloween parties and parades, we also have students whose families do not celebrate or feel comfortable with their children participating in Halloween festivities,” the elementary school principals wrote in a joint letter to families in 2021. “We have young children who become overwhelmed and sometimes frightened of the costumes and others who come to school with no costume at all.”

But these decisions have also been met with outrage in some communities. Just this month, a school district in Northborough, Mass., reversed a decision to cancel a Halloween parade after some parents pushed back.

Other New Jersey districts have also changed Halloween celebrations. In 2021, Riverside Elementary School in Princeton rescinded a decision to get rid of Halloween celebrations after a backlash. In its place, the school planned to allow students to dress up as their favorite book character as part of a celebration on reading.

A spokesperson for the South Orange and Maplewood district said that the district’s position on Halloween had not changed, despite the governor’s post.

“All of us realize that this breaks with what the district has usually done, and that can be a difficult thing to do sometimes,” Dr. Kevin Gilbert, the assistant superintendent of access and equity, said in a statement. “Often, working to instill greater equity in our district begins with recognizing that we cannot do what we have always done.”