University of Minnesota officials have a word of caution for students: Be careful with those Halloween costumes.

In a letter to students, the Office of Student Affairs notes that some costumes "inappropriately perpetuate racial, cultural and gender stereotypes."

And it urges students to "take care" in selecting their Halloween outfits, lest they pick ones "that are offensive or hurtful to others."

The letter was e-mailed Oct. 10 to students at both Twin Cities campuses, according to a university spokesman.

"Really, this is about raising awareness," said Danita Brown Young, the vice provost and dean of students, who cosigned the letter with Katrice Albert, vice president of equity and diversity. "We just want people to be respectful and be thoughtful when they are celebrating Halloween."

The letter doesn't cite any specific incidents of students donning offensive garb.

Brown Young, a newcomer to the university, said that this type of cautionary letter has become routine at many colleges but that it appears to be a first for the University of Minnesota.

"We've received several e-mails from students … saying thank you for sending this out," she said.

Mike Schmit, the undergraduate student body president, says the letter was a response to a perennial issue.

"I think every year there are some students really on all college campuses that wear insensitive costumes," said Schmit, 21, a junior majoring in business.

Last year, a sorority at Penn State drew headlines for holding a Mexican-themed party where guests dressed up in sombreros, mustaches and ponchos.

"As a student, I think you're better off erring on the side of not dressing like something that can be questionable," Schmit said. "Cowboys, for instance — totally fine. Indians — not totally fine."

He noted that his fraternity, Beta Theta Pi, sent a similar e-mail to its members last week with the subject line: "HAVE FUN, but be respectful." It included a two-page flier listing party themes to be avoided ("blackface, men dressing like women") and acceptable ones ("disco party, heroes and villains").

Brown Young said she's heard several students complain about costumes that stereotype American Indians and African-Americans, although they were not necessarily on the U campus.

Christopher Hammerly, vice president of the U's American Indian Student Cultural Center, said the issue is a touchy one, much like the debate about Indian mascots in sports.

"What it boils down to is, it takes things that are part of our culture," he said, and degrades them. "To us … a feather isn't just a feather. A headdress is not just a headdress. It's not just a costume."

Hammerly praised the administrators for sending the letter. "I thought it was great," he said. "I think that it has started that conversation in a way that only an e-mail sent to every student and faculty could do."

Brown Young said she hopes it will prompt reflection among students, even if it sparks some complaints about political correctness.

"I don't think it goes overboard," she said, adding that there's no implied threat of any disciplinary action. "What we're just trying to say is just be mindful."

The letter also reminds students that anything they post on social media sites may "have a long-term impact on your reputation."

Even on Halloween, it says, "We all benefit from acting with an understanding of the concepts of diversity, inclusion and respect."

Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384