The superintendent for Melrose Public Schools recently made waves when she announced the district's elementary schools would be skipping Halloween celebrations this year.
In an email to parents last week, Superintendent Julie Kukenberger explained the reasoning behind the decision to "de-emphasize" the holiday on Oct. 31 and instead encourage fall-themed activities, saying school officials wanted to promote inclusivity.
“We pride ourselves on being, ‘One community, open to all.’ For this to be true, we must live this mantra in all that we do. This includes in school celebrations,” the superintendent wrote.
The decision drew immediate backlash from Melrose parents, including Carolyn Finocchiaro who started an online petition -- Keep Halloween for our kids -- that had garnered more than 2,800 signatures by Friday.
"Halloween, the term and the celebration, are being removed from the schools in Melrose," the petition stated. "A holiday and tradition that started out centuries ago, has now evolved into a modernized day of fun costumes, creepy decorations and lots of candy."
"The administration of the Melrose Public School system has decided that the term and celebration of Halloween in the schools (specifically the elementary schools) is no longer acceptable and non inclusive. A day that is merely about costumes and fun has turned political."
Finocchario told NBC10 Boston Monday that teachers were told to take down jack-o’-lanterns from their rooms and replace them with leaves. While Kukenberger's unpopular decision was the talk of the Massachusetts town ahead of Halloween weekend, her ruling also made its way to a much larger audience.
Jimmy Kimmel devoted the first segment of his monologue in an episode of “Jimmy Kimmel Live” on Wednesday to the Boston suburb, in particular the city's superintendent, and the late-night TV host appeared to agree with outraged parents.
Kimmel started off his bit by mentioning the midweek nor'easter that was threatening Halloween celebrations in New England, where "they're already threatened by humans, by people who are trying to take Halloween away," he said.
“I know the country is very divided right now, but this I believe might be the kind of thing that will unite us,” Kimmel continued. "Maybe not, probably not."
Kimmel explained that the Melrose school district had decided to "deemphasize Halloween," but that it's "not because of COVID; it has nothing to do with COVID."
"Schools will not host their annual Halloween festivities this year thanks to a new policy," Kimmel revealed. "Superintendent Julie Kukenberger sent a letter to families saying, 'over the past several years, MPS has worked to deemphasize Halloween and shift our focus toward community building through fall celebrations....As we work to address unfinished learning, two of our key priorities are 1.) equity and the inclusion of all students and 2.) fostering a sense of belonging and partnership with all students, families and staff.'"
“And I guess that means no Halloween party? I don’t know why,” Kimmel said, after he had finished reading excerpts of Kukenberger’s email to the studio audience. “Sounds to me like maybe Julie Kukenberger couldn’t think of a fun costume so she ruined it for everyone.”
But Kimmel didn't see the problem, he said.
"Kukenberger said there are people who don't celebrate Halloween, students, and that means those kids might not come to school at all that day, which alright, problem solved then, right?"
Halloween in Mass.
Kimmel took it a step further, though, hitting directly on the district's message of inclusivity, remarking, “Maybe I’m being obtuse but who’s feeling marginalized by a Halloween party? Goblin-Americans? I don’t know. All I know for sure is there are about to be a lot of eggs thrown at the Kukenberger house.”
Because he wanted to be "helpful," Kimmel suggested that instead of deemphasizing Halloween, the district could come up with an alternate, "non-offensive" name for "an inclusive holiday at the end of October that could be freely celebrated, inclusively for all."
Among his suggestions were: National Gourd Appreciation Day; Squash Hashanah; Children Dress Slightly Different Than They Normally Do Every Day; the Festival of Non-Terrifying Eco-Friendly Rubber Masks; Draculabor Day; All Snickers Eve; Afterlife Awareness Day; Just Let the Theater Kids Go Nuts Night; and -- "something we can all get behind" -- Rob Schneider's Birthday.
While the studio audience seemed to get a kick out of Kimmel's act, not everyone liked what they were watching.
The segment was posted to the 'Jimmy Kimmel Live' Twitter account early Thursday morning, where a number of Twitter users replied to it, calling out Kimmel for naming Kukenberger on national television and claiming the Melrose superintendent has received a number of death threats.
"Please apologize for doing this, Jimmy Kimmel. You named our superintendent and now she is getting threats," Sandy Dixon replied. "Please take responsibility for your actions and understand that this has become a bigger issue than it actually is. Do better!"
"Dr.K is working hard to include everyone. Just like we do Holiday celebrations instead of Christmas, she is changing the theme to Fall celebrations to INCLUDE all. Shame on you!," another Twitter user replied. "Now work on helping her protect her family. RIDICULOUS!"
"How dare you. Dr K is awesome and shouldn't be put through this," Cheryl Ringen said. "I really hope you can help with her police detail. Would you want this type of attention for your family?
"Mocking one person just doing her job by name and endorsing egging her house is punching down Jimmy. Especially when she and her family are already targets of right wing crazies," Elle Williams wrote. "Mean doesn't look good on you. Do better. Apologize. Many school districts did same years ago."
"I am not easily offended, and I don’t make a lot of comments on Twitter, but this segment needs to be addressed by Kimmel because he has made a small-community’s minor issue into a viral story, and the superintendent is getting death threats. Unacceptable, Kimmel," responded Paula Shulman.
"This woman is getting death threats now. Her children’s pictures & where they attend school are being circulated by right wing psychopaths," another person commented. "Halloween was never canceled in Melrose, this was a non-issue for 90% of the public school families. Shame on you for amplifying this."
The personal attacks against Kukenberger and the circulation of her family's photos were addressed directly by Melrose Mayor Paul Brodeur in a statement Thursday on "civil discourse."
The mayor firmly reminded residents there is no place for personal attacks in public conversations. Brodeur specifically noted that the personal attacks against Kukenberger and the use of photos of her family "are simply wrong and need to stop - whether they come from within Melrose or from outside our community."
Brodeur was careful to point out that with social media, these types of things can spiral much further than they normally would. He also said the Melrose community is at a critical juncture.
"We all have opinions, many of them strongly held, and have every right and responsibility to share them. We will sometimes disagree. But how we express ourselves and how we move forward are critical to our civic fabric and the future of our community," the mayor said. "Personal attacks do not have a place in our public conversations. Especially in the social media age, words and actions can have far-reaching consequences. Nobody – certainly not our educators and especially not their families – deserves to be targeted. As a community, we pride ourselves on being “One Community Open to All.” We cannot afford to abandon these values."
In his statement, which was posted his Twitter account and to the city's website, the Melrose mayor also defended the decision that had been made by school officials.
"When it comes to our schools, I believe that our community wants to create an environment where every student can succeed to the best of their ability. Decisions about how to spend classroom time are made by our superintendent and principals, people who I know care deeply about the academic and social growth of all of our students," Brodeur wrote. "I am not saying that folks cannot question those decisions or disagree; rather I am saying that the passion, professionalism, and commitment of Dr. Kukenberger and her leadership deserve our respect. Our debates should reflect that."
Brodeur ended his statement asking everyone to tone it down, writing, "By all means, let’s renew our commitment to focus on how we can do best by all our kids, but let’s take down the temperature and make sure our conversations are respectful, informed, and substantive."
"Deemphasizing Halloween" in Melrose schools was first brought up at a school committee meeting last November, according to the Boston Globe. Two members encouraged broader discussions of fall cultural celebrations, including the Harvest Festival and the Day of the Dead. Supplemental material linked in the members’ presentation argued that since Halloween isn’t universally acknowledged due to its pagan origins, its festivities should be looped in with other fall celebrations.