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The Great Debate-School Uniforms

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Imagine that you pick your seven-year-old child up from school. He is crying and wearing a different outfit than the one he wore to school. This is naturally upsetting but not as upsetting as your next discovery. His shirt, one you have never seen before, has a large "L" written on the sleeve in permanent marker; his shorts, also not his, are too large, stained and faded. Upon questioning your child, you discover that, despite your best efforts at compliance, your child's clothing has violated the school's uniform policy. Neither you nor your husband was called to bring your child a "compliant" change of clothing; rather a loaner uniform was forced upon your child. He was made to change into these alien clothes (McBride "Student" 1-2).

The debate over mandatory uniforms in the public school system is raging across the country and in our own backyards. Proponents claim uniforms improve many areas in the educational arena while opponents vigorously challenge these claims. Opponents also cite potential civil rights violations while uniform supporters counter that the potential benefits greatly outweigh any loss of freedoms. The issue of mandatory uniforms in the public schools gained the spotlight of national attention following President Clinton's 1996 State of the Union address. During that speech the President stated, "If it means that teenagers will stop killing each other over designer jackets, then our public schools should be able to require their students to wear uniforms" (Clinton 4). The President later visited Long Beach, California, where the first, district wide, mandatory school uniform policy in the country was enjoying seemingly remarkable success. He told those attending his speech that he had signed an order instructing the Secretary of Education to send to all school districts across the nation the newly generated Manual on School Uniforms ("Clinton" 1). The manual outlines specific steps for school districts wishing to implement uniform policies. It also gives examples of a few model policies from across the nation (United 1-7). The President went on to thank and praise Long Beach for their glowingly successful uniform policy ("Clinton" 3). Thus, the Long Beach Unified School District's uniform policy became the national standard for school districts across the country.

Despite the apparent success of some uniform policies, these often highly restrictive codes are not without problems. First, the highly favorable anecdotal reports coming from some school districts with uniform policies contrast sharply with the emerging empirical studies on the efficacy of uniforms. The recent data does not support the claims made by uniform proponents. Also, if provision is not made to permit parents to opt out (exempt their children from these policies), the codes are vulnerable to legal challenge (United 3). Sadly, some districts in an attempt to have a successful uniform code are overzealous in their enforcement techniques, causing confusion and stress for school staff and parents and often humiliation for students. While requiring public school students to wear uniforms may sound like an attractive quick fix to some, actual implementation of these highly restrictive policies is often rife with difficulties.

Proponents of mandatory school uniforms claim that data and evidence support their assertions that uniforms improve discipline and reduce crime. While the positive reports emerging from some school districts with uniform policies seem to lend credence to this position, upon closer examination, flaws begin to appear. In Long Beach, California, the first district to have a widespread mandatory uniform policy in the public schools, the initial reports concerning drops in crime and discipline were astonishing. Assault dropped by sixty-seven percent, vandalism by eighty-two percent, and robbery by thirty-five percent. Overall crime was reduced by seventy-three percent the first year the policy was in place ("K-8" 1). Unfortunately, these radical improvements were, at times, attributed exclusively to the new, mandatory uniform policy. During a telephone interview in April 1996, Dick Van Der Laan, Long Beach Unified School District spokesman, stated that the only change which had occurred in the district, prior to the improved discipline results, was the implementation of the uniform policy. However, in the study conducted by Drs. David L. Brunsma and Kerry A. Rockquemore of the University of Notre Dame, a closer look at the Long Beach case revealed that several other reforms were put in place at the same time or shortly prior to the implementation of the uniform policy. So, while uniforms were the most visible change, the improvements were more likely attributable to the other programs which included, among other initiatives, a $1 million grant from the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation for the improvement of teaching methods (Brunsma and Rockquemore 16). Concerning the tendency of Long Beach sources to give credit for the improvements exclusively to uniforms, the study states, "It seems curious given these substantive reform efforts, administrators continue to insist that uniforms are the sole factor causing a variety of positive educational outcome" (16). In response to such scrutiny, Van Der Laan now states that while the district believes uniforms were a contributing factor to the improved discipline rates, they were not the only cause (United 4). The University of Notre Dame study also belies the claims that uniforms improve discipline: "Our findings indicate that student uniforms have no direct effect on . . . behavioral problems" (Brunsma and Rockquemore 1). So, despite the claims that the improving disciplinary numbers being issued by Long Beach, California, are attributable to uniforms, the data seems to contradict those assertions.

Another example of a district's policy failing to produce the results often touted by uniform supporters is the Miami-Dade County, Florida policy. In an effort to obtain the dramatically positive discipline results reported by Long Beach, Miami-Dade County implemented a similar policy in many of their elementary and middle schools beginning in the 1996-97 school year. The results were, at best, disappointing and, at worst, alarming. The elementary schools with mandatory uniforms saw a slight decrease in discipline problems. Unfortunately, the high hopes held by the district for immediate, significant improvement in discipline were not realized. Sabrina Walters, a reporter for the Miami Herald writes, "The drastic decline uniform supporters had envisioned did not occur" (1). Alarmingly, in middle schools, where uniforms were mandatory, fights nearly doubled over a four-year period from 186 in 1996-97 to 284 in 1997-98. The district



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