An Ontario school board has sent a checklist to parents before Halloween: Does your child’s costume “represent a stereotype,” such as “terrorist” or “urban ghetto dweller?” Does it involve changing the colour of their skin? Does it allude to a culture that is not the child’s own, such as a kimono, a turban or a feather headdress? Does it “mock” transgender people? Is it based on “tragic or violent historical moments,” such as “slave” or “cowboy and Indian” role play?

If the response is yes, a French-language school board district has asked parents and children to reconsider their choice of costume – part of a growing movement to fend off any hint of offence in Halloween attire.

The guidelines e-mailed to parents late last week by Conseil scolaire Viamonde, a publicly funded French school board in central-southwestern Ontario, comes amid debate of whether costume-policing is violating free expression. Supporters, however, say that costumes could cross the line to sexism, racism and appropriating culture, often from marginalized or economically disadvantaged communities, in a disrespectful and offensive way.

In its guidelines, titled Is My Costume Appropriate?, the Viamonde school district stated that costumes worn to school should be respectful of its diverse student population. “Sometimes, even with good intent, or even without fully realizing it, people wear costumes that can make others feel upset, insulted or humiliated,” the board stated. “Certain themes are touchy spots for members of our community and we want to show them kindness.”

Claire Francoeur, a spokeswoman for the board, which oversees schools from Oshawa to Windsor, including Toronto, said the guidelines have generated discussion among parents and students, some of whom did not believe certain costumes could be offensive.

“We are trying to be really inclusive for everyone,” she said. “It is important to be respectful each and every day of the year, not just 364 days and giving up our duty of being respectful on Halloween.”

Schools generally ask children wearing Halloween costumes not to carry toy or replica weapons. A checklist of what constitutes an offensive Halloween costume is unusual.

At the Vancouver School Board, the aboriginal education department sent a memo to principals this month to share with staff on culturally offensive Halloween costumes. The memo said Halloween offers a chance to discuss costume choices with school staff and students. It discussed what cultural appropriation means and asked staff to respectfully speak with people whose costume choice may be offensive. “We need to encourage others not to mimic cultural, racial or ethnic groups,” the one-page memo stated.

The Viamonde school district’s guidelines also address what could be an appropriate costume, which includes animals, fictional and imaginary characters, and creative costumes, such as a surfing shark or a purple-coloured Martian.

The issue of culturally offensive Halloween costumes has become a widespread topic of discussion. In 2012, a photo of Toronto Maple Leafs centre Tyler Bozak wearing blackface as part of a Halloween costume caused an uproar. He defended his decision, saying his costume was a tribute to late singer Michael Jackson.

And Erika Christakis, a Yale University lecturer, resigned two years ago after being criticized for saying students should be left to decide how to dress for Halloween. She was responding to an e-mail sent by Yale advising students that it would be insensitive and inappropriate to wear Halloween costumes that were offensive to groups of people.

Michelle Stack, an associate professor in the department of educational studies at the University of British Columbia, said schools have a responsibility to create a safe environment for all students, and Halloween is an opportunity to speak with children about respecting cultures.

“Halloween is about having fun and using our imagination. Surely, in the 21st Century, we can be more creative than going back again and again to the same old racist, homophobic, ableist and sexist storylines that cause such harm,” Prof. Stack said.

Radean Carter, a spokeswoman for the Winnipeg School Division, said her board does not send out a letter to parents on culturally appropriate costumes, but expects students to be diligent. “Students today are learning so much in school about living in a diverse society. There may be a reminder about what is inappropriate costume wear included with our annual safety messaging, but students know themselves how to be culturally sensitive,” she said.

But Jacquie Benish, who has three children attending schools in the Viamonde district, said that parents “unfortunately need regular reminders about what might be appropriate or sensitive in terms of dressing their kids.”

When she received the guidelines, she immediately responded over e-mail to express her gratitude to the board. Two of her children will dress as Superman and a Minion for Halloween. Her daughter prefers to make her own costume, she said.

“We live in a diverse community and we need to bring our children up in a sensitive, inclusive way,” Ms. Benish said. “There are so many costumes out there that won’t be hurtful to anybody. So why not pick one of them.”

The Globe and Mail, October 10, 2017