Wednesday, October 18, 1995
Section: Local
Page: 1B

By: By LORI ARATANI, Mercury News Staff Writer

It may have been the spirit of Halloween but more likely it was the screams of hundreds of parents and children that ultimately persuaded trustees in the Los Altos school district to back away from a controversial ban on school-time celebrations of the October tradition.

After more than three hours of debate under the glare of dozens of television cameras, board members decided just before midnight Monday that they had made a mistake. The parties and parades can go on.

''My feeling is that if you want Halloween to be the way it was, then I agree,'' Trustee John Moss told the overflow crowd of more than 600. Hundreds of others milled around outside after the fire marshal closed the meeting room at Blach School.

The decision was greeted with shouts and cheers.

Trustees added a caveat to their unanimous vote: They urged teachers and students to be sensitive to those who believe that Halloween celebrations violate their religious beliefs.

For more than a week, the tiny school district had been the object of national scrutiny and public scorn after the board temporarily banned Halloween observances in district classrooms after several parents voiced religious objections, saying the events glorified Satan and the occult.

Of the hundreds who attended the meeting, the vast majority supported Halloween celebrations. Students carried hand-lettered signs and banners, some even dressed up as witches, cheerleaders and clowns. A man who identified himself as a former Satanist-turned conservative Christian minister was one of a handful who spoke in favor of curtailing Halloween.

The Los Altos debate highlights the problems school districts face in trying to reach consensus at time when individuals are increasingly sensitive to perceived attacks on their personal beliefs or identities. In San Jose's East Side Union High School District, for example, a group of black parents is asking that ''The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn'' be removed from required reading lists because it contains racial stereotypes and racial epithets.

By the end of the meeting, Los Altos trustees had decided to drop not only the Halloween ban, but also a nine-month effort to change the way religious beliefs and customs are handled in district classrooms.

'Lighten up'

Many of the 100 people who spoke at the meeting Monday said they believed trustees had gone too far, and accused them of caving in to the wishes of a vocal minority. Board members even received guidance from the Chocolate Manufacturers Association of America - urging them not to enact the ban for obvious business reasons.

''Lighten up, board members, before you're known as the Halloween version of Scrooge,'' said Kristine Kizer, an eighth-grader at Blach School.

Katrina Wilhelm, president of the Los Altos Teachers Association, called Halloween a ''rich opportunity for creative expression.''

''(Teachers) are concerned . . . the guidelines appear to be a form of censorship,'' she said.

Indeed, many in the audience feared a ban on Halloween activities would set a dangerous precedent in the district.

''The result of these guidelines will be censorship,'' said parent Jackie Degner. ''In every areas of the curriculum there could be religious objections. Where do you draw the line?''

A very small number argued that the board was only doing what is right. One man even urged trustees to go further, banning even after-school Halloween activities.

''I feel the decision is a very good one,'' said parent Terry Roberts. Her comment was greeted with loud boos from others in the audience.

Beliefs and customs

The Halloween debate was an outgrowth of an ongoing discussion by trustees over how religious beliefs and customs should be taught in district classrooms. Board members had also discussed eliminating Christmas carols and Hanukkah songs from holiday programs - even paper dragons from Chinese New Year celebrations - because they might be offensive to some families.

But after Monday night's debate, Trustee Terri Sachs said it would be impossible to reach consensus. The best course of action, the board concluded, was to leave things the way they were. Along with Halloween, paper dragons, Christmas carols and Hanukkah songs can stay.

While trustees consider the issue settled, one speaker raised the possibility of a legal challenge. But Superintendent Margaret Gratiot said the district believes it has acted within legal bounds.

Actions in other states

Los Altos is not the first school district to suggest banning Halloween parties and parades during school time. In Texas, Virginia and Florida, districts have either banned celebrations or restricted them to after school.

Instead, some local Christian schools sponsor International Days and encourage students to dress in international clothing.

The board thought it had reached a reasonable compromise by allowing Halloween activities after school, but as word of the decision got out, many district parents were outraged. One labeled the move ''political correctness gone amok.''

For days after, phones in the district office rang off the hook and television cameras descended on district headquarters.

''One thing I think we've learned is that we must listen to the larger community,'' said Gratiot. ''You don't see things in proper balance when you have only a few people at the board meeting.''

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