Some Iowa schools hold fall parties instead of celebrating Halloween.(Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto)
DES MOINES — In many Iowa schools, Halloween is a holiday that isn't welcome.
Schools have been nixing the celebration since the '90s, according to longtime educators and Register news archives.
Schools in Des Moines, West Des Moines, Johnston and other communities are opting instead for more neutral "fall parties" — without the controversy and hoopla of Halloween.
It's also a policy that's relieved at least some concern about "creepy clown" costumes disrupting local schools, since all costumes are banned.
Here are five reasons schools are saying "no" to Halloween:1. Religious concerns
Some parents have long condemned Halloween as a holiday celebrating devil worship, a concern that appeared in a 1996 Register story.
While these complaints also sparked pushback — "People try to read too much into some things," one parent said at the time — it prompted schools to stop the celebrations.
"If you're doing a whole school thing, and some people don't want to do it, how do you do something that honors everybody's wishes?" said Iowa State professor Greg Robinson, a former elementary school principal and superintendent in Urbandale.
It's been at least 18 years since Beaver Creek Elementary in Johnston celebrated Halloween, for example, in part because of religious sensitivity.
“We have a lot of families that have different traditions and different religious beliefs,” Principal Eric Toot said. "Some people don't like the connotations around Halloween, which is why the decision was made."
Schools have that flexibility, but the ACLU of Iowa said educators shouldn't be worried about legal consequences if they do celebrate the holiday.
"Unless they are using Halloween as a means to engage in religious indoctrination of the kids in some way, like telling all the kids they have to dress up as specific religious figures, they are not crossing the line or getting into any scary territory," said Legal Director Rita Bettis.2. Scarier costumes
Children kept coming to school with more realistic — and more disturbing — costumes.
Robinson still remembers a first-grader who wore a realistic-looking mask with an ax cutting into his head.
"It had blood and things like that," he said. At the time, he recalls thinking: "Is this something we really want to have?"
Around the country, some schools responded by setting strict dress-up rules or requiring costumes to be a storybook character, which gave the celebration an academic focus.
But Robinson was among those who switched to a "fall party," which is a more general celebration of autumn — usually a scaled-back version without costumes.
Amid the "creepy clown" threats this year, that may come as a relief to some parents.
Unlike schools in Colorado, New Jersey and other states, many Iowa districts haven't taken the added step of banning clown costumes.3. Academics
The change also came during a time of increasing pressure to raise the academic bar, pressure that schools still feel.
Educators complained that Halloween hoopla was overshadowing learning.
"It got to the point where people were spending a lot of time worrying about 45 minutes," Robinson said. "It's not why kids are coming to school."
For example, while classrooms at Dallas Center Elementary have "fall parties" with crafts and treats, and some children change into costume, it's a very limited celebration.
“We want to focus on learning, and that’s a distraction,” said Principal Diann Williamson.4. Party concerns
Although not the primary reason, schools had growing concerns about food allergies.
Schools were adapting how they approached classroom treats, making parties more difficult to coordinate.
“If we weren’t providing the treats, we had to look at what was coming in and what wasn’t,” Robinson said.
Longtime educators said the shift also came amid changing social norms. More parents were working, and fewer parents were available to help coordinate and supervise parties.
"We used to have homeroom parents and volunteers that would bring in cookies or treats," he said.5. Economic concerns
As costumes became more elaborate, schools worried about the pressure Halloween celebrations put on family budgets.
Some students arrived in costumes that "cost a fortune," Robinson said. Other families chose not to participate at all.
That's one of the reasons Johnston schools stopped celebrating — educators worried about the celebration dividing students.
“There's a lot of differences in the type of costumes that can be worn, and what some could afford and not afford,” said Ann Thelen, district spokeswoman. “It put parents in a competitive position.”
Knowing how much fun students enjoy dress-up days, Toot said his school incorporates the activity in simpler ways, such as during Johnston's homecoming celebration.
"It's a fun day," he said.