Editor’s note: Report was posted at 6 p.m. and updated at 7:35 p.m.
FRAMINGHAM – A battle over holidays is brewing at one Framingham elementary school.
Days before Halloween, the Principal at McCarthy Elementary School sent an email to staff to tell them that reading Halloween-themed books was not allowed in the K-5 school.
“In an effort to respect the many different cultures and religions of the children and families in our community, we do not celebrate Halloween or read books about Halloween at school,” wrote McCarthy principal Cynthia Page.
But in one of the district’s schools, teachers dressed up in costume. Seniors are allowed to wear costumes on Halloween at Framingham High.
McCarthy teachers told SOURCE that at least one kindergarten class in the district celebrated Halloween, but the district administration said it did not happen.
A photo that was posted about that school’s event was deleted from social media. But SOURCE found these posted photos from a different elementary school, which allowed students to wear costumes in class near Halloween.
Teachers and staff at McCarthy believe their school is being held to a strict no holidays stance while other elementary schools and other schools in the Framingham Public district are not held to the same standard.
“I did remind staff in an email that we as a school community do not celebrate Halloween (with parties or parades) or conduct whole class read-alouds focused solely on Halloween during school, yet let them know that students are welcome to take Halloween books out of their classroom library or school library for their own independent reading enjoyment,” said Principal Page to SOURCE. “This email was sent to honor our diverse school community at McCarthy and reinforce our commitment to respecting and including all members and voices of our students and families as we provide a safe and welcoming learning environment for all our students.”
Many of the teachers did not want to go on the record with SOURCE with their name, for fear of retribution by the administration, but a couple of teachers did allow SOURCE to use their names.
“McCarthy has lost its joy,” said one veteran McCarthy teacher. “There is no laughter in many of the classrooms. It’s sad.”
Another teacher said “other elementary schools still mark holidays in the classrooms, but we have been told it is prohibited.”
Teachers met with Principal Page in a staff meeting on Monday, November 30, along with some central office staff to discuss the issue.
“I wore a Hanukkah sweater on the day we had the meeting,” said McCarthy teacher Kathy Kenney-Marshall, who has taught at McCarthy for 3-plus decades. “I am not Jewish but I’ve had Jewish students in the past and I wanted to support them. I read a Hanukkah story and gave students who celebrate Diwali books that were gifted to me to them. I plan to wear my own holiday clothes as well. Where do we draw the line? Are they going to as teachers to take off their cross necklaces or Star of David? Will Hijabs not be tolerated?”
Framingham Superintendent of Schools Bob Tremblay said policies are not decided on a school-by-school basis but district wide.
“I recall that when I was a principal – about a decade and a half ago – I used to bring together the entire school for a monthly All-School Sharing Assembly. During the December event, I would read ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas to the students. A Christmas tree was behind me and students processed into the gymnasium to holiday carols. Christmas carols. When I reflect on that time, I wish I had done things differently. I wish that I had been more inclusive of the students and staff that I was trusted to lead. There were no complaints whatsoever at that time, but that doesn’t mean it was the right thing to do,” said Supt. Tremblay to SOURCE.
“I understand the need for inclusion for all,” said long-time McCarthy Elementary teacher Lisa Zanella. “I know the students in my classroom. I am capable of including all in my readings. I can read Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanza stories.”
But those December holiday stories, have also been banned by the McCarthy Principal, as well, said teachers.
“The point here is that our individual and collective efforts to be better, to represent others better, to be more intentional and mindful of the cultures and values that make up our richly diverse school communities, is a journey of growth. That growth comes when we make mistakes and learn from them. Growth happens when others remind us of our responsibilities as educators and leaders to make sure that all of our actions are aimed at including others without ever excluding anyone. Those reminders can evoke defense mechanisms and upset. Even when voices – shy or unaware – aren’t raised or lifted, our growth comes with the acceptance of our responsibility to do right by everyone in our care, even in the absence of dissent,” said Supt. Tremblay.
But Halloween and December celebrations are not the only issue.
Last month, the district’s new Director of Multicultural Education Aradhana Mudambi told teachers to abstain from Thanksgiving or “Turkey Day” references.
“We may be tempted to wish our students a Happy Turkey Day due to the longstanding tradition in the United States of serving turkey on the fourth Thursday of every November. But how inclusive are we in doing so? In a district such as ours, where over 70 languages are spoken, students come with many traditions from their heritage cultures and adopt various and differing elements of the local culture. Not all our families may even choose to celebrate this weekend, but even among those who do, many may not be eating turkey this weekend and some in fact, may find it culturally inappropriate and/or personally offensive,” Mudambi wrote.
Framingham Public Schools observes the Thanksgiving federal holiday and there is no school on Thanksgiving and the day after Thanksgiving.
“Many South Asian, Hindu students may acknowledge Thanksgiving at their homes with a special feast, those who are culturally vegetarian may be in need to substitute the turkey with other foods due to their faith. Similar faith-based objections to eating turkey may be experienced by students who are practicing Buddhists or Seventh-Day Adventists,” wrote Mudambi. “Additionally, even students who cannot easily trace their heritage to lands outside of the United States may choose to be vegetarian due their own convictions, a choice we should respect.”
Director of Multilingual Education Mudambi said “as a way of melding cultures together, even families and students who do not practice vegetarianism may choose to cook foods from their own heritage this weekend instead of cooking the stereotypical, Thanksgiving fare. Hence, by referencing the day as “Turkey Day,” we unintentionally exclude some of our students. So perhaps instead of the usual turkey crafts or references to turkeys, we could instead have students share what a special meal is at their house and build sociocultural competence by talking about how food is a source of togetherness among families all over the world. And for those students who celebrate, we can wish them a Happy Thanksgiving, and for others, a wonderful long weekend, but perhaps not a Happy Turkey Day.”
Fuller Middle School traditionally holds an annual Turkey Trot race, the McCarthy PTO raised funds and purchased turkeys for needy families for Thanksgiving, and one Principal dressed up as a turkey the day before the federal holiday.
McCarthy teachers said Principal Page has taken her policies beyond just holidays and has started singling out teachers who object to any of her school building decisions.
On the day before Thanksgiving, veteran McCarthy teacher Michelle Gerald said she was wearing a shirt she had worn about a dozen times since she started working at the K-5 school more than a decade ago,
She wore a black shirt that said “back the blue” on the back of the shirt.
Gerard, a former police officer in Vermont now turned elementary school teacher, said she had never been told before to not wear that shirt.
But on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, a day when students are dismissed just after 11 a.m., Principal Page told the kindergarten teacher around 10 a.m. her shirt was “offensive” and told to immediately change.
Gerard told SOURCE she told the Principal she had no other shirt to change into and Page ordered her to leave the building immediately and to go home.
Gerard said that has never happened to her before.
“The shirt is not offensive. I have worn in multiple times before,” said Gerard, who texted a photo to the news outlet.
“I have always worn shirts to support our first responders and our military,” said Gerard. “No one has ever said anything.”
A couple of years ago, McCarthy Elementary School teacher Nancy Golden, whose son is a Framingham Police Officer, worked with the Framingham Police Department to have uniformed officers come into the McCarthy classrooms and to read to the students.
Gerard said she has had worn the shirt in question when the officers had been in the classroom, but also said she has worn shirts that support firefighters and “our military.”
The kindergarten teacher said no student had ever questioned her shirt or asked her about it. She said no students or staff had every complained about the shirt before.
A McCarthy teacher told SOURCE on Friday, December 3, a 5th grade student wore a “back the blue” shirt all day and no one told him to change.
“I did ask a teacher to follow what I understood to be the district expectation and policy around displaying politically motivated slogans,” said Principal Page to SOURCE about sending Gerard home the day before Thanksgiving. “We value our relationship with all of our community partners, including our Framingham Police Department, who have a long standing commitment to McCarthy School in various community service opportunities. This request was made to respect and include all members and voices of our school community as we provide a safe and welcoming learning environment for all our students.”
“I know that wearing a shirt that says ‘Blue Lives Matter’ could be considered political,” said Gerard to SOURCE. “But this shirt did not say that. Sending me home was extreme.”
Gerard said as a former police officer, who worked on child endangerment cases, she is very sensitive to children and messaging.
“I have brought my badge, a bullet-proof vest, and other items into my classrooms over the years,” said Gerard.
Gerard was a probation and parole officer in the State of Vermont for 13 years.
“Being an officer is part of who I am,” she said. “We have police officers in the building to read. I don’t understand why she thought the shirt was offensive?”
SOURCE asked Assistant Superintendent Inna London what is the district’s policy. She referred Source to the district’s policy on dress “In their association with students, all school employees shall set examples that are an important part of the educational process. Their manner, dress, courteousness, industry, and attitudes establish models that affect the development of young people. The School Committee expects its staff members to be exemplary models, as well as to provide exemplary instruction.”
“In connection with campaigning, an employee will not: use school system facilities, equipment or supplies; discuss their campaign with school personnel or students during the working day; use any time during the working day for campaigning purposes. Under no circumstances will students be pressured into campaigning for any staff member,” wrote London to SOURCE.
But there have been several times over the years, that the Framingham Teachers Association has encouraged their members to wear t-shirts that support the teachers union.
McCarthy teachers said the principal’s policy in regards to holidays is inconsistent.
“We can do a lesson on Diwali, but not on Halloween. We can do something on Chinese New Year, but yet Thanksgiving is not allowed,” said one veteran teacher.
“It is important to celebrate the diversity of our students,” said Zanella to SOURCE. “I want to be inclusive for all my students. I would include a lesson on all holidays they celebrate. The administration needs to trust us to do that.”
“Having we learned nothing from history?,” said Kenney-Marshall. “Ignorance breeds fear which is divisive. If we fail to learn from history, we are doomed to repeat those mistakes. If kids don’t know about what other kids’ traditions are, they can’t understand them and may feel afraid.”
McCarthy teachers said they have been told to include some holidays in their lesson plans and other times told not to include other holidays in lesson plans.
Several of the teachers said their colleagues in other schools do not have the same restrictions.
“When did recognizing difference become taboo?” said Kenney-Marshall. “We should be teacher the kids about EVEYTHING. Life is amazing. If encouraged to read ‘My Two Dads/Moms, shouldn’t we also read about other types of homes?”
“I am committed to creating safe spaces for all our students and recognize that shifts in what past practices have been can be difficult for some. This is part of the work as school leaders – to take stock in the changing landscape and adjust our practices as necessary. As we continue our own personal journeys and our journey to being an anti-racist district, we have the unique opportunity to challenge not only our own beliefs, but others as well, as we work to provide a safe and welcoming environment for all our students and families,” said Principal Page to SOURCE.
“We should be learning about the traditions of or many cultures,” said Kenney-Marshall. “Inclusion means adding not negating.”
“Holiday issues and consistency across the district is a growth journey for the Framingham Public Schools. We will continue to engage in uncomfortable discussions with our educators and leaders and we will, together, learn through our journey so that every lesson and celebration is one that honors our students and staff. Policies and practices – whether institutionalized, written, or not – will undoubtedly shift and our minds and hearts will, over time, come to accept that just because “we’ve always done it that way” doesn’t necessarily mean that it was the right thing to do,” said Supt. Tremblay.
In full transparency, SOURCE editor/publisher was the PTO President at McCarthy Elementary prior in 2010.