Mrs. Massey calls two young girls to the front of the room.
“Aisha is passing out cupcakes today, but you cannot have them because you guys do not celebrate birthdays,” she tells the young girls. The young girls stare up at her, wide eyed and confused.
“But I’m allowed to have cupcakes at home,” Brianna yelps in protest. Mrs. Massey explains to her that she is a Jehovah’s Witness and cannot celebrate Aisha’s birthday.
“I’ll let you have them this time, but I’m talking to your parents about it,” the teacher said to the girls. The girls pay no attention to their teacher and run to their cupcakes, smiling.
Religion in schools is not a new issue; however, the times have changed, and so have the public schools. All but 10 years ago, it was not uncommon to witness a sea of children masked and painted on Oct. 31, but today that sight is rare.
In the 1950’s and early 1960’s, religion in schools was not a concern. The school could conduct prayers, force all students to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, and Jesus’ birthday was celebrated and rejoiced. However, after a Supreme Court ruled in 1962 that prayers in school were unconstitutional, the precedent was set.
Rulings against student prayer groups, standing for the flag, teaching evolution, and talking about religious holidays all came to follow.
Helen St. Elementary School in Hamden is a perfect example of how politically correct schools have become. The school does not celebrate Halloween with their children. Instead, students have a “pajama day,” where they get to dress in their jammies and there is no connection with the candy holiday.
Barbra Massey, one of the kindergarten teachers for Helen St. School, explained that when it comes to holidays, religious or not, the school tiptoes around the subject.
“When it comes to the winter holidays, we usually talk about snow and reindeers, and instead of a menorah, we have a dradle because it’s more of a toy,” Massey said.
Massey is actively involved with her students, and has open communication with their parents. She said that each year, parents go to her and explain their family’s religious practices.
Helen St. School is not the only school dealing with these issues so sensitively. In fact, it is among many. Rocky Hill Elementary School in Wallingford is another school that is avoiding incorporating religious holidays in their curriculum. Principal Allyson Glass has been with the school the past three years, and stressed that her school is politically correct.
“We are upfront with the parents and always offer an alternative for the student if there is some type of celebration going on,” Glass said.
Glass further explained that during the holidays, the school has a sing-a-long, with nonreligious songs, but the school does try to incorporate songs from each holiday celebration. On Halloween, the children do have a Halloween parade. If parents do not wish to have their children partake they are allowed to keep their children home that day without being penalized. Glass also said Rocky Hill does not celebrate Easter.
“The children will make spring baskets rather than Easter baskets and spring bunnies instead of Easter bunnies,” Glass said.
On the high school level, many of these concerns are not a problem. Teenagers are much more accustomed to their religious beliefs, and understand more fully what their religious restrictions entail. But there is still no Christmas party before the students leave for vacation, and Kwanza is not discussed in January. However, Jewish students are excused for their absences during their religious holidays.
“We do not overtly celebrate any holiday at the public schools. We comply with the school board’s demand,” said James Vicario, assistant principal of Wilby High School in Waterbury.
This seems to be the attitude of most school officials. No official, teacher or principal will openly criticize new policies at the schools. Each reaction is the same: this is how it is, and I follow what I am told to do. After all, there isn’t much they could do in protest; they are paid to carry out the curriculum of the school board. Even if a teacher chose to celebrate one holiday, the classroom would become isolated.
The school board affirms that schools not only can, but also should partake in some celebrations that could help educate students about different cultures. Sullivan-Decarlo said, “We don’t discourage the celebration of holidays,” Sullivan-Decarlo said. “Schools do celebrate holidays, especially those that have a historical or cultural connection, like Hispanic Heritage Month and Cinco de Mayo.”
Looking around Mrs. Massey’s classroom, it is obvious the children are not lacking in culture. The room is filled with colors and games and books all used to heighten the children’s development. But Mrs. Massey remains unfazed by the appeal of her classroom.
“It’s sad too because we used to have a lot of fun with Valentine’s Day,” Massey said. “The children would pass out valentines and candy, but they can’t do that anymore.”