The principals of two Columbia elementary schools tried to take the controversy out of Halloween by urging parents to avoid costuming their children as ghosts, goblins or violent characters but instead have found themselves involved in a debate over individual rights of dress.
Dasher Green Elementary Principal Philip L. Arbaugh suggested in a newsletter early this month that parents avoid "costumes that portray witches, goblins, Satan, etc."
At Thunder Hill Elementary School, Principal C. Anthony Yount made a similar newsletter suggestion, urging parents to choose costumes that avoid violence, the supernatural or the occult in favor of more creative and amusing costumes.
The Dasher Green newsletter prompted one parent to complain publicly that the principal's request crossed the line between church and state.
In recent years, fundamentalist Christians in some Maryland counties have complained that Halloween promotes devil-worship and Satanism, prompting school officials in those counties to seek a middle ground.
In Frederick County, for example, Superintendent Noel T. Farmer issued guidelines last year urging principals to be sensitive to some parents' objections to celebrations of Halloween during school hours.
At Mount Airy Elementary School, Principal Althea V. Miller canceled the school's Halloween celebration in 1987 after fundamentalist Christian parents complained about the activity. Instead, youngsters had a party centered on the sesquicentennial of Carroll County's founding in 1837.
Miller said the situation was particularly sensitive in Mount Airy because of a grave robbing at nearby Pine Grove cemetery in October 1986.
She said she also felt that the half-day parade and party was taking up too much academic time. Mount Airy Elementary students now have a parade and party the last hour of the school day on Halloween, but the principal said she has not issued guidelines on costumes.
The local principals' actions came in the wake of a recent decision by a school system committee to remove a book called "Curses, Hexes and Spells" from elementary school libraries. Yount supported a Thunder Hill parent's request to have the book removed.
Arbaugh did not respond to repeated requests for comment from The Howard County Sun.
Yount was reported on a field trip in Gettysburg yesterday and could not be reached to learn whether any connection existed between the withdrawal of the book and the newsletter.
He had said Monday that his comments in the newsletter were a guideline, not a ban on specific outfits.
"I never banned costumes," he said. "If they want to be witches, they can."
The Thunder Hill principal said he hoped parents would give some thought to their children's costumes, "not just go out and buy a Freddy Krueger (the villain of "Nightmare on Elm Street") mask or whatever."
Yount said he had not been pressured by parents on the issue but felt that the school system should provide role models for a Halloween celebration centered more on fun than on violence.
Celebration plans at the school include a parade on Halloween with the Howard High School marching band furnishing music and individual class parties.
Thunder Hill PTA President Nancy Yee said she has heard varied responses from parents. "Some say it's OK for principals to say certain things should not be used as costumes. Others say that belongs in the home."
Yee said her personal feeling is that "gentler things are fine. I don't like the bloodletting."
She said she feels it is important that children be taught Halloween characters are not real. For example, her son is a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fanatic, Yee said, and she and her husband have made sure the youngster understands that the turtles are fantasy characters.
Melodi Smith, president of the Dasher Green PTA, said she supported Arbaugh's newsletter comments because she does not want to see school Halloween celebrations curtailed.
"The reality is, if Halloween becomes an issue, it could be banned from school," she said.
Smith said most of the parents she has talked with expressed the view that "the kids should be allowed to dress up as anything they want."
Smith said she hopes that parents will be tolerant of costumes chosen by other parents and that the holiday will remain fun for children.
"It's a time for children to dress up and be something they're not," she said. "It's just a chance to party and have fun. How often do you get to come to school in anything other than your jeans and sweat shirt?"