Illinois School District Nixes Christmas and Jello

So long Halloween parade. Farewell Santa’s gift shop.

The long-celebrated holiday traditions are facing elimination in some Oak Lawn schools this year after complaints the activities are offensive, particularly to Muslim students.

Final decisions on which of the festivities will be axed will fall to the principals at each of Ridgeland School District 122’s five schools, Supt. Tom Smyth said.

Parents expect the announcement to add to the tension that’s been building since school administrators agreed earlier this month to change the lunch menu to exclude items containing pork to accommodate Muslim students. News that Jell-O was struck from the menu caused such a stir that officials since have agreed to bring the popular dessert back.

That controversy appears to have been been dwarfed by the holiday debate, which became so acrimonious Wednesday that police were called to Columbus Manor to intervene in a shouting match among parents.

“It got heated,” Division Chief Mike Kaufmann said of the disturbance call.

No charges were filed, and one police officer defused the argument. Officers left school officials to settle the matter, he said. One Muslim family was cautioned not to attend a PTA-sponsored activity later that night because tensions ran so high.

“It’s difficult when you change the school’s culture,” said Columbus Manor School Principal Sandy Robertson, who predicts the holiday changes will be even tougher to stomach than the thought of losing Jell-O.

Elizabeth Zahdan, a mother of three District 122 students, says she took her concerns to the school board this month not because she wanted to do away with the traditions but rather to make them more inclusive.

“I only wanted them modified to represent everyone,” she said.

Nixing them isn’t the response she was looking for.

“Now the kids are not being educated about other people,” she said.

There’s just not time in the six-hour school day to celebrate every holiday, said Smyth, who personally sent the message to principals that they need to “tone down” the activities that he sees as eating into too much instructional time already.

“We have to think about our purpose,” Smyth added. “Are we about teaching reading, writing and math or for parties or fundraising during the day?”

Robertson is hoping to strike some compromises that will keep traditions alive and be culturally acceptable to all students – nearly half of whom are of Arab descent at Columbus Manor, she says. Just fewer than one-third of students district-wide are Arabic, according to Smyth (though all Arabs are not Muslims and all Muslims are not Arabs).

Following the example of Lieb Elementary School, Columbus Manor will exchange the annual Halloween parade for a fall festival next month; kids still can wear costumes, but only in the classroom. The holiday gift bazaars at both schools also will remain, but they’ll likely be moved to the PTA-sponsored after-school winter festival. And Santa’s annual visit probably will occur on a Saturday.

Such compromises, however, don’t appear to be a crowd-pleaser – at least initially.

Parents such as Donna Carvelli, who has two students enrolled at Columbus Manor, are in an uproar about the news.

“These are important traditions, and they’re for everybody,” she said. “I just want everything to be left the way it is.”

But changes in school traditions are occurring already, albeit slowly. Previous district-wide decisions – to rename the annual Christmas party a holiday festival and Halloween party a fall social – were conscious efforts to make the celebrations more inclusive and culturally sensitive. Last year, the district also began paying closer attention to dietary restrictions and started serving two lunch options, one of which excluded pork products.

“We have to be cognizant of who is at our school … to make sure we’re not eliminating or excluding,” Robertson said.

Zahdan says the changes have been noted but don’t go far enough.

“The title changed, but the theme is the same,” she said pointing to the annual holiday gift shop as a half-hearted attempt at cultural sensitivity.

All students may have been invited, but any message of inclusiveness was drowned out by the Christmas music last year, she said.

“We want the school to be neutral for everybody,” Zahdan said. “These children are all American and should be treated equally.”

(By Angela Caputo, DailySouthtown.com)

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