Monday, June 27, 2005

Gang Apparel In Schools: How Two California School Districts Reacted

In many areas, schools have become fertile recruiting-grounds for street gangs. In some districts, the schoolyard has become a battlefield where members of opposing gangs almost routinely engage in acts of violence. Oftentimes, the victims of such gang-related violence are innocent bystanders. In order to address this problem, many school districts have found it necessary to further modify their student dress codes. Sadly, this is now taking place in primary schools:
Due to rising gang concerns, elementary school students in Turlock may soon be held to the same clothing standards as middle and high school students, according to one school district administrator.

Ed Felt, Turlock Unified School District's assistant superintendent of secondary education, said trustees will vote on a proposal at their July 5 board meeting to add kindergarten through sixth-grades to the district's already-adopted gang-related clothing guidelines.

Last December, trustees voted guidelines in place for seventh- through 12th-graders, citing an attempt to be proactive in stopping possible gang violence on school grounds.

Among other restrictions, clothing guidelines prohibit solid red or blue shirts and the wearing of any hats that do not contain school logos.

"After meeting with principals, we thought the current guidelines should be extended to elementary schools," Felt said. "The goal is to have intervention and educational practices at the earliest levels to prevent gang activity."

Clothing is not only a way gangs display their colors, but it is an introductory method of gang recruitment, according to Felt.
It was in response to the high-level of violent gang activity that the California elementary school district in which I teach adopted a policy of "mandatory" student uniforms back in 1997.

Initially, the District's educrats and their tame school board refused to consider adopting any variation of a student uniform, but after a vociferous group of parents (numbering over 200) petitioned the governing board, the board relented and agreed to survey parental preferences. Questionnaires were then distributed to the parents at the various "open houses" around the district.

The board did this in spite of the fact that there was a smaller, but equally vociferous, group of (mostly affluent) parents who were opposed to any type of student uniform.

About 80% of the district's parents returned the survey. Of these, the district said that 91% had indicated a preference for student uniforms. In fairly rapid fashion, the governing board then adopted a "student uniform policy." The policy was implemented during the 98-99 school year.

On the first day of school, our junior high campus was a "sea of blue bottoms and white tops." We teachers noticed an immediate (and positive) difference in overall student attitudes and behavior. As a matter of fact, a number of us teachers also wore (and continue to wear) the "school's uniform" on most school days. It certainly does make it easier to buy my work clothes!

Even though in California parents can "opt-out" of any uniform policy, a surprising number of our district's parents choose not to do so. I don't have any figures, but it would be safe to say that less than 2% of our district's students "opted-out" and have a "uniform waiver."

For us, student uniforms worked. There was a significant reduction in the amount of gang-related violence in our district's middle and junior high schools. (Historically, there had been little gang activity in our district's primary schools.) And even though the administrators at the junior high school where I work have slowly "loosened" the uniform policy, the level of gang-related disciplinary incidents and violence has not returned to pre-uniform policy levels.

Because gang-activity and overall violence at the school sites has been reduced, there is now an on-going discussion in the offices of the district's educrats about whether or not there is a need to continue having "mandatory" student uniforms. Perhaps these district-level educrats have never forgotten that it was the parents (and not themselves) who introduced the notion of school uniforms in the first place. It's quite possible that these district-level educrats are resentful.

Most of us who actually work in the district's classrooms do not wish to see student uniforms go by the wayside. Generally, the district's teachers feel that the continued use of student uniforms helps create an environment that is more conducive to teaching and learning.

Certainly, student uniforms are not the universal solution to the "gang problem" in every school where such concerns exist. But for one mid-sized Southeastern California school district, student uniforms were (and remain) a part of the solution.

Will the new dress code in Turlock have any positive effect on their "gang problem?" That remains to be seen. What is truly sad is that Turlock had to expand it's policy in response to increased gang activity in its elementary schools.

I guess that it's a sign of the times.
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