Dressing For School Success: The Uniform Of The Day
The newest school fashion trend is not ripped from the pages of the latest magazine -- it comes from the principal's handbook as a growing number of school districts are adopting more stringent dress codes and implementing school uniform policies.
Since 2000, the number of schools adopting these policies has continued to rise, said Nathan L. Essex, former dean of the University of Memphis' College of Education. Schools in 37 states now have some sort of rules for uniforms, he says."ACLU opposes dress codes," he said. I wonder how many ACLU attorneys have ever had to face a work environment in which the inadvertant wearing of the "wrong" colored shirt into the "wrong" restroom could cause one to be assaulted?
Essex, president of Southwest Tennessee Community College and a former schoolteacher, says he believes safety concerns spurred the new policies and expects the trend to grow more widespread.
"Basically, due to the violence [schools] encountered during the late 1990s into the early 2000s -- such as [shootings] in Conyers, Georgia; Pearl, Mississippi; and Paducah, Kentucky -- I think those things really stimulated a lot of school officials to look at campus safety," Essex says.
Proponents say dress codes and school uniforms increase school safety by eliminating gang-related clothing and helping aid in the recognition of nonstudents on campus. Other potential benefits cited include better student behavior, more resistance to peer pressure and improved emphasis on academics.
California's Long Beach Unified School District was the first public school to bring uniforms to the classroom, beginning in 1994. Today, kindergartners through eighth-graders in the 93,000-student district wear mostly white polo-type shirts with khaki or navy blue pants or skirts, depending on the school. About 2 percent of the students "opt out" of the uniforms by parental consent.
"It was part of a package of reforms to raise standards not only in dress but also in behavior and achievement," says Chris Eftychiou, spokesman for the school district. "The idea was to reduce discipline problems and distractions and improve overall student behavior."
For the third-largest school district in the state, results were immediately noticeable, Eftychiou says.
"We started to see better behavior shortly after the uniforms became mandatory. We saw fewer fights, and the kids were just getting along better," he says. "The learning environment is much better, and the students are less polarized."
On the other side of the school yard, critics dispute the benefits and argue dress codes and school uniforms restrict students' free speech.
Justin Taylor, a 10th-grader at Alabama's Fayette County High School, which doesn't have a strict dress code, says any move toward uniforms would take choices out of his hands.
"I wouldn't like it. I just wouldn't like wearing the same things over and over again every day," Justin says. "I would rather wear what I wanted."
Opponents also contend that dress codes do not erase social class distinctions because the policies usually don't apply to jewelry, backpacks, bikes and other accessories, Essex says.
He also points out no long-term studies have examined dress codes' effect on crime, attendance or academic achievement. For now, he says, anecdotal evidence exists of the policy's positive effects.
Some schools' move to a more stringent dress code can spark national attention and threats of lawsuits.
In 2004, Timothy Gies, a senior at Bay City Central High School in Michigan, was suspended several times for wearing shirts and sweat shirts with anarchy symbols, peace signs, upside-down American flags and an anti-war quote from Albert Einstein.
He took his case to the the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, and his school discipline was overturned after the ACLU intervened.
"My view and the ACLU view on suppression of political speech in school is that the public schools have a pointed responsibility to prepare students to think critically and participate in our democracy," says Michael Steinberg, legal director of the Michigan ACLU.
"ACLU opposes dress codes -- we believe students have a right of free expression, a part of which is expressing their individuality through the clothes that they wear," Steinberg says. "And parents can control the clothes their children wear, but it should not be a matter that the state dictates."
Dress codes and uniforms aren't about stifling students' rights to express themselves, they're about keeping kids safe and setting a business-like learning environment in our classrooms.
As we've said before, after our elementary school district implemented student uniforms, there was an immediate change for the better at our junior high school. But that was several years ago, and since then, for a variety of reasons, there has been a slow deterioration of pupil discipline. Still... I think student uniforms were a good idea, especially for our district's gang-infested public schools.
View the last week's edition of The Carnival Of Education right here.
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