The great debate-School uniforms
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 administrators attempted to explain away this startling fact by pointing out that fights increased at nonuniform schools as well from 152 to 201 over the same period (1). The conclusion of the Miami-Dade Study states,
This study has not proven the unequivocal effectiveness of mandatory uniforms. If school uniforms promoted educative behavior, as powerfully as conjectured, the incidents of safety infractions should have declined dramatically subsequent to the establishment of uniform policies at elementary schools in Miami-Dade County. However, as indicated the changes in frequency of these infractions were independent of which dress code was operative at a school. (Miami-Dade 4-5)
The summary further states that while some safety violations declined at mandatory uniform schools, the same problems were reduced at nonuniform schools as well (1). Empirical data does not support the anecdotal accounts of discipline and safety improvements cited by uniform proponents.
Improved academic achievement is an additional benefit frequently attributed to mandatory uniform policies. Consistently, however, data from true scientific study seems to contradict this claim. In the study performed by Drs. Brunsma and Rockquemore, test scores at schools having mandatory uniforms actually dropped (1). The school district in Long Beach, California, continues to produce test scores significantly below the state average despite years of mandatory uniforms (“STAR California” and “STAR Long”). Despite claims set forth by proponents that uniforms improve academic performance, there is no empirical data to lend validation to these claims.
Supporters further claim that uniforms improve attendance. According to proponents of these policies, uniforms improve school attitude and spirit which brings about a net decrease in truancy and absenteeism. In Long Beach, California, attendance has slowly improved in elementary and middle schools since their mandatory uniform policy has been in effect. Attendance has also improved at the high schools where no uniforms are required, at a more statistically significant rate (“In Schools” 2). This would seem to indicate an overall trend rather than uniform-induced improvement. Further study of these statistics indicates that the trend of improved attendance has been ongoing since 1990 (2). In Polk County, Florida, where the most restrictive, district wide uniform policy in the nation was set in place in 1999, the opposite of Long Beach attendance results is emerging. In the 1998-99 school year there were 506 truancy cases investigated in Polk County. By January 2000, the district was on track to break that record for the 1999-2000 school year (McBride “Schools” 1). The truancy rate is so bad that in an effort to curtail it, the Superintendent of Schools is seeking to criminally prosecute the worst offenders, including a seven-year-old boy (Shah 1). The effect of truancy and absenteeism was also addressed in the University of Notre Dame study. No direct causation was shown (Brunsma and Rockquemore 1). There is no scientific data which shows that uniforms have a positive impact on attendance. In fact, it is possible that in some cases, absenteeism and truancy may increase under these policies.
Among the many components needed to make a uniform policy a success is a clause, known as an opt out, which provides parents with an avenue to remove their children from the policy. The most successful policies in the nation, including the one in Long Beach, California, permit parents to exempt their children from uniforms for any reason. In Long Beach the procedure for obtaining an opt out is simple. Parents seeking an exemption must request, either by mail or in person, an exemption form. They must fill it out and meet with an administrator who will discuss their objections and verify the information contained in their form to prevent fraudulent exemptions (“Guidelines” 4). Loren Siegel, director of public education for the American Civil Liberties union, cautions schools against omitting an opt out provision from uniform policies:
For a public school uniform policy to be legal, it has to have an opt out provision. Every child in this country has the right to a public school education, and that right cannot be conditioned upon compliance with a uniform policy. Some parents and children will have religious objections to uniforms. Others won’t want to participate for aesthetic reasons. (1)
Even the Manual on School Uniforms, published and distributed by the United States Department of Education, says this about opt out provisions: “A mandatory school uniform policy without an opt out provision could be vulnerable to legal challenge” (3). The most restrictive policy in the nation is here, in Polk County. Beginning in the 1999-2000 school year the opt out provision was removed from the district’s uniform policy. This was done in response to the ever-increasing numbers of parents who were exempting their children from the uniform policy and those parents who were simply ignoring it (Tillman 1). Hence, the district made the decision to remove the opt out in an effort to force compliance. A provision to permit parents to exempt their children from mandatory uniform policies is one of the most crucial elements in insuring a successful program. The lack of this provision virtually guarantees legal challenge and community division.
In addition to removing the opt out provision, the Polk County School District instituted progressive discipline for noncompliance culminating with out-of-school suspension (School 35). As a result of this perceived loss of freedom, a law-suit was filed on behalf of 544 plaintiffs in the United States District Court, Middle District of Florida (in Tampa) (Norgard 1-12). This lawsuit cites eleven constitutional causes of action. It claims these violations with respect to both the Florida State and the United States Constitutions (8-11). One of the arguments made by the plaintiffs is that according to Article IX, Section 1 of the Florida State Constitution, “Adequate provision shall be made by law for a . . . high quality system of free public schools” (Florida 66). It is the position of the plaintiffs that requiring the purchase of specific items in order to be educated causes the education to cease to be free (Norgard 11).
The Polk County policy is also vulnerable to legal challenge because it is not content neutral (having no written message conveyed) because school T-shirts, bearing school messages are part of the uniform (School 11). Since students are prohibited from wearing shirts bearing religious or political statements but in a sense are required to wear a district approved statement successful legal challenge is possible (United 2-3). One incident in Polk County involved a child who wore a shirt bearing an image of the American Flag with text reading “God Bless America One More Time.” The child was made to change into a “loaner” uniform shirt (“Uniform” 2). Since students are denied access to the classroom for noncompliance, the parents feel that their children’s education is being held hostage. A North Carolina school district recently reached an out-of-court settlement granting a student an exemption from that district’s uniform policy for religious reasons. Previously, the district had denied all requests for exemptions, even those based on religious objections. The decision was made to grant the exemption on the eve of the scheduled court date. The district will also amend its policy to allow religious exemptions (“Student” 1). Thus, the best way to protect a policy from potentially successful legal challenge is to follow the advice and the lead of those with successful policies and permit parents an opt out provision (United 3).
When policies are set in place with no opt out, overzealous enforcement often takes place causing a myriad of problems. In Polk County, the district office ordered that their mandatory uniform policy was to be vigorously enforced. In an effort to ensure parental cooperation with the policy, the Superintendent of Schools threatened to seek criminal charges against parents who did not send their children in compliant clothing. Glenn Reynolds, Polk County Superintendent of Schools, said of parents who do not follow the code, “we feel it’s contributing to the delinquency of a child” (Cimino “Polk” 1). What results from this aggressive enforcement is all too often a source of confusion for parents and school staff. Cyndee Smith, a Polk County parent who had been extremely pleased when the School Board voted in the uniform policy, changed her mind following a conflict over her son’s shirt color. Workers at his school deemed the shirt to be forest green when the policy demanded hunter green. He was forbidden by school officials to wear the shirt again (Cimino “Uniform” 1). Samantha Bonilla’s son, a second grader, encountered a similar problem. He wore a pair of pants left over from the previous school year and was deemed to be noncompliant because the pants were too faded (1). In classrooms all over Polk County, daily uniform inspections are conducted on the more than fifty thousand students affected by this policy (2).
Enforcement of the Polk County uniform policy varies from school to school which causes a great deal of confusion for parents trying to comply. Some schools will not allow a stripe or trim on shirt collars or pants legs while others permit them (3). In one such case, a student used a marker, with a teacher’s help, to color in a stripe on his pants leg so that he could return to class. “He didn’t want to miss school,” the teacher said (quoted in Ferrante 3). Yet, at a different school, a principal may base a decision on the size of a stripe and if the “spirit” of the policy is honored. If so, a stripe may be permissible. The lack of consistent enforcement is a serious drawback with this sort of policy.
Often shades of an official color cause disagreements between parents and school staff. A school principal said, regarding shades of color, “If I had to pick the biggest problem, it would be the color blue. The (school sanctioned) navy is very dark blue . . . but we see royal blue, sky blue and jeans that are faded” (1). Even as recently as February 2000, over half way through the school year, the suspensions continue due to conflicts over compliant clothing. A middle school student at Boone Middle School in Haines City was recently suspended over the color of his sweater. School administrators claimed that the sweater was black and his mother insisted that it was navy blue, an approved color. His mother contacted the manufacturer to verify that it was blue. She was told that the company did not make that particular style in black, so it was definitely blue. Despite the evidence, her son, an honor student with an excellent record, was suspended during the week of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests (F-CATS) (Sager 1). If a parent interprets a color or style of clothing differently than school administrators, the parent consistently loses and must purchase more clothing that is deemed acceptable by the staff (“Uniform” 1).
Another major problem with policies which are too vigorously enforced is the humiliation and fear suffered by the children who are never quite sure if they will be singled out as noncompliant (Cimino “Uniform” 2). In some cases, enforcement borders on the criminal. One of the most egregious acts of enforcement occurred on August 12, 1999. A sixth-grade girl, an honor student, wore a school T-shirt and a pair of navy “Capri” pants which her parents had specifically purchased in accordance with the written uniform policy provided by the school. The parent reported, “When I saw my daughter, I knew instantly that something was wrong.” The mother had been called to the school and informed that her daughter’s “Capri” pants did not meet the uniform requirements. The reason the assistant principal gave was that the pants contained 4% spandex. According to the uniform policy, spandex clothing is forbidden. When the mother later asked her daughter how the school official had determined the fabric content of her pants, her daughter informed her that the overzealous administrator had reached inside of the child’s pants to read the tag. Despite calls to district offices and law enforcement, no punitive action was taken against the administrator (McCall 1). In another case, a nine-year-old boy was forced to change out of his shirt into a loaner in a closet. He was denied his request to call his mother. When his mother asked the school to show her the closet where her son changed, the school refused her request stating that if she was shown the closet, she might go to the media (Anna 1). One nine-year-old boy’s mother sent a note with him to school asking to be called if his clothing should be ruled noncompliant so that she could bring him a change of clothing. The school staff refused to call her and told the child to either change his shirt into a loaner, or be sent to the in school suspension room. He complied with the demand to change, and was up vomiting all night due to nervous upset (“Uniform” 3). In one parental account, a five-year-old girl wore a pair of over-alls depicting the Disney character Winnie the Pooh. According to her father, she was called to the Principal’s office and told “if she didn’t start dressing right she would be in trouble” (3). Throughout Polk County accounts like this are common. Unfortunately, in an effort to appear firm and forced to operate under strict directives from the district office, staff is placed in the position of being the fashion police. In Polk County, where previously parents and teachers worked together, there is now a large amount of division in the name of uniformity.
What would you do if your elementary aged child came home from school crying, telling you that he/she had been pulled out of line on his/her way to class, stood against a wall, and made to wait while all the other children went to class? Your child then tells you that the clothes you purchased for school, following the school’s Code of Conduct guidelines, were deemed unacceptable by the principal and he/she was forced, under threat of punishment, to change into loaned, approved clothing. You are told, through sobs, of your child’s humiliation and fear at being “in trouble.” How do you feel knowing that you are responsible for your child’s discomfiture? After all, you purchased the clothes in good faith and sent your child to school confident that he/she was appropriately garbed. Imagine that you call the principal to inquire about the confusion and your child’s state of emotional upset. You are told that you will have to purchase more clothing that is deemed acceptable by the principal or your child will be punished and denied an education. You were trying to follow the rules. Yet you, the parent, are told that your best judgement is wrong and that you have no recourse. There is no flexibility. Situations such as this are encountered on a daily basis by parents whose children are subject to a public school, mandatory uniform policy. Why does this occur? All empirical research in existence shows, beyond question that uniforms are ineffective as the magic bullet proponents claim them to be. In a culture where all too often our children do not have textbooks, education dollars are being squandered in courtrooms defending uniform policies destined to be deemed illegal. There is no reasonable justification for denying a child, who is ready and eager to learn, his/her education because of the color or shade of a shirt. If a student is prepared to learn, that learning cannot be conditioned on how he/she is dressed. Uniforms are a band-aid solution to a very deeply flawed education system. We, as adults, spout platitudes to our children, such as “It is who you are on the inside that counts,” and then we tell them “because you are wearing the wrong color you are not worthy of an education.” In a culture where diversity is a point of pride, can we justify this sort of intolerance? History will likely show uniforms to be an educational fad utilized by school districts seeking a visible, quick fix to a long-term problem. In the meantime, our students will continue to pay the price for the whims of those who decide policy. These are serious times demanding serious solutions for our children, not appearance changing, divisive schemes based in conjecture and theory that can divide communities and destroy freedoms. In light of the lack of positive empirical research results, costly potential legal challenges, and enforcement abuses, perhaps mandatory school uniforms in our public schools are not a viable tool with which to help fix our limping educational system. Our children deserve educators and administrators who are guided by facts and sound educational methods. We cannot afford to allow our schools to be used as laboratories and our children to be used as guinea pigs for new questionable fads founded in vanity and based on supposition.
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