Is Halloween a trick or a treat? That's the debate in school districts across the nation this year.
In response to complaints from religious groups and concerns for children's safety, some school officials are banning Halloween costumes, canceling traditional parties, and calling off parades.
While some see Halloween as a secular American holiday of childish fun, others view it as a ritualistic celebration of the occult. The National Association of Christian Educators, a conservative religious group, argues that Halloween celebrations should be eliminated, especially since many schools no longer celebrate Christmas, Easter, and other traditional religious holidays out of deference to those who hold other beliefs.
Earlier this month, a group of parents in Los Altos, Calif., persuaded school-board members to ban school Halloween parties and parades. Following an angry outcry from the community, the decision was reversed.
The religious significance of Halloween is lost on most Americans, says Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. ''Whatever significance it may have had to the Druids, it has none to contemporary Americans,'' he says. (The Druids were a Celtic priestly class in Britain, and celebrated Nov. 1 as their new year. The Christians added to and eventually absorbed the festival, which became All Saints' Day. The night before was designated All Hallow e'en.)
Some school administrators are not waiting for complaints from parents before changing the way Halloween is celebrated at school. As Jason, Freddie Krueger, and other horror-movie characters have gained in popularity, schools cite concerns about frightening younger children. Fake weapons pose a threat to security, and monster claws or vampire teeth can be dangerous.
David Decker, principal of Southern Boone County Elementary School in Ashland, Mo., banned Halloween costumes this year and canceled the parade.
''With the blood and gore, the costumes are getting more and more violent,'' Mr. Decker says. ''Violence has no place in an elementary school, plain and simple.'' The principal also cites concerns that an adult in costume could kidnap a child without being noticed.
Each classroom at the elementary school will still hold an end-of-the-day party with games and treats, but it will be based on a fall theme. ''We won't have little ghosts hanging in the room,'' says second-grade teacher Sherie Garriott. ''There will be more pumpkins and leaves.''
Fall festivals are not the only Halloween alternative being offered by schools. In California, some Christian private schools have transformed Halloween into International Day and encourage students to dress in national costumes.
At Coverdell Elementary School near St. Louis, this year's Oct. 31 is designated Pioneer Day. Students will wear costumes of simple garb dating to the mid-1800s and celebrate by making candles, baking bread, and participating in songs and games from the period. Last year, the day was marked with a Western theme.
''This is our third Halloween to try something different,'' says Dorothy Adams, a third-grade teacher at Coverdell. ''Before this, children were coming to school wearing claws, and that just lends itself to getting into hassles with one another.''
At another St. Louis-area school, principal Frank Thouvenot has asked students to dress as characters from their favorite books. ''We don't allow any costume that might frighten our younger students,'' Mr. Thouvenot says. Any student who brings a fake weapon to school as part of a costume faces suspension or expulsion.
In past years, schools have tried to keep students from dressing in costumes that might be offensive to others. Gypsies and hobos were discouraged as derogatory statements about those groups. Now, some schools find it easier to ban costumes than to police them.
''We don't want to be in a position of telling kids what costumes they can and can't wear,'' says Mark Yehle, superintendent of the Ashland, Mo., schools. ''If they want to dress up as Freddie Krueger [of 'The Nightmare on Elm Street' movies] on their own time, that's up to them.''