ELPS Board, Administrators Explain and Support Decision on Halloween, Valentine’s Day

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Photo courtesy of the City of East Lansing.

Two children paint pumpkins at Fall Fest, 2016.

The East Lansing Public Schools Board of Education and superintendent elucidated the decision-making process Monday night on the decision to end parties for Halloween and Valentine’s Day in elementary schools in the face of parent pushback and national media attention.

The School Board anticipated from social media that more people than usual would attend this week’s regularly-scheduled meeting. Staff set up an overflow room in the East Lansing High School Student Union, where the meeting was being livestreamed, but the Board Room never reached capacity.

Since the announcement about eliminating in-school parties for Halloween and Valentine’s Day and news media around the country picking up the story, Board members and administrators have been inundated with emails from parents in the community and people in other states. Some social media posts locally called for parents to attend last night’s meeting to make public comment.

The decision also came up at the East Lansing City Council meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 19, when Mayor Jessy Gregg and Council member Ron Bacon said people had contacted the City Council and City staff to complain about the decision, often with aggressive or even threatening language. (Some examples can be found in the Communications to Council packet.)

Superintendent Dori Leyko explained how the decision was made and what it means going forward.

According to Leyko, the decision to end in-class parties for Halloween and Valentine’s Day is something that administrators in the district considered for several years before making it official.

This year, elementary school principals approached Leyko and Assistant Superintendent Glenn Mitcham about some students being negatively affected by Halloween and Valentine’s Day celebrations. The district’s new Director of Equity and Social Justice also participated in conversations leading up to notifying families of the new policy.

Speaking on behalf of the elementary school principals during public comment, Marble Elementary School Principal Josh Robertson said that while the central administration supported the decision, the conversations this year about ending in-school celebrations for Halloween and Valentine’s Day were initiated by elementary school administrators, based on feedback and conversations with teachers.

Leyko also explained that the Justice Leaders Collaborative – an organization based in Washtenaw County that has provided professional development in the area of diversity, equity, and inclusion to ELPS faculty and administrators – was not involved in the decision-making process.

Instead, Leyko said, the district has engaged with the Justice Leaders Collaborative because the district has made equity and inclusion a priority. Using some of what they have learned through this professional development, administrators and teachers have begun to identify practices that exclude children instead of including them.

Leyko also stood by the decision-making process despite some parents saying they wished they had been consulted through surveys or meetings of parent councils. Leyko said that the job of parents is to advocate for what’s best for their children while administrators are to make decisions that are best for all students in the district.

She pointed out that the current celebrations leave some students excluded as they come to school without costumes or candy and their families cannot attend celebrations. She encouraged families to celebrate these traditions at home and said the district would be developing replacement activities. (There are still many Halloween-related activities around town, as ELi recently reported.)

During public comment, four parents spoke out against the decision, mostly voicing frustration that parents were not consulted.

One parent said that the decision was not necessarily the wrong one but was concerned by the speed with which the decision seemed to have been made. He also stated that he found it “dismissive” to suggest that decisions like these should be left to administrators. That parent added that he found these celebrations to be part of the country’s culture and did not want to see parts of that culture compromised or eliminated.

Another parent, who identified as an immigrant to the United States, said diversity includes choice and that the district had chosen uniformity. She suggested other solutions that she thought could promote inclusivity while allowing the in-school celebrations to continue. She referenced efforts in Whitehills to help children buy books at book fairs and winter coat drives for students who could not afford winter coats.

One couple spoke together, saying that they would support a change in celebrations, such as a fall festival instead of a Halloween party. The mother said diversity would be bringing all the children together and said she saw elimination of the celebration as divisive. The father, who identified himself as an Arab American, argued that, as taxpayers who pay the salaries of those making the decision, parents should have been consulted. He also argued for teaching all holidays instead of elimination.

Speaking after public comment, the Board stood by the decision while acknowledging communication could have been better.

Speaking first, Treasurer Kath Edsall supported the decision, stating that she saw it as an effort to address inclusion at the institutional level. While she endorsed things like coat drives and gift cards for needy families, she said those efforts did not address institutional-level issues. She stated that even donating costumes would not include everyone, and students in donated costumes would still feel socioeconomic class differences.

The other trustees all stood by the decision, and some pointed to the letters of support that they had received from families in the district.

The conversation also addressed how the ELPS community could communicate better. Vice President Kate Powers said the ten days following the decision had been challenging and that she had been thinking of the best ways to effectively communicate. Secretary Chris Martin said that even when parents who had disagreed with the decision spoke with him individually, they were able to have productive conversations.

Edsall and President Terah Chambers also clarified how the district functions in terms of making decisions. The Board is unpaid and elected to set policy directives and hire the superintendent. The superintendent then hires her administrative team at the district and building levels. Building administrators then hire teachers.

Chambers said that she supported the celebrations decision, and said it showed the district’s support of the Board’s diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. She was happy to see that administrators and teachers had been receptive to that policy directive.

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