Dress Codes & Uniforms in Public Schools
This article discusses dress codes and school uniforms in K–12 public schools in the United States. While virtually every public and private school in the world has either an informal or formal dress code stipulating what students can and cannot wear to school, a required school uniform is not universal. However, in many parts of the world, from Australia to Malaysia and New Zealand to Great Britain, school uniforms are a part of life for public and private school students. In the United States, school uniforms were once the exclusive domain of private and religious schools, but since the 1990s they have been hailed as a solution to issues surrounding drugs, violence, and academic shortcomings afflicting many public schools, particularly in urban areas. Many of the most significant constitutional challenges to public school uniforms have been rejected by the courts in the recent decades, and many parents and administrators credit them with improvements in school safety and academic performance. Critics allege that dress codes and school uniforms violate First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and freedom of religion, and they maintain that the results credited to dress codes and school uniforms can be explained better in other ways.
Keywords Dress Codes; First Amendment; Freedom of Religion; Freedom of Speech; Private Schools; Public Schools; School Safety; School Uniforms
School uniforms are nothing new. The practice of requiring students to wear a uniform dates back at least to the sixteenth century in England, where students at the University of Cambridge were required to wear them as a way to halt the spread of new fashions in the hallowed halls of learning (Brunsma, 2004, pp. 4-5).
Historically, claims Dussel (2005), school uniforms in the United States in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were used to keep control over the bodies of racial minorities. The point was to ensure that ethnic and racial minorities were uniform with respect to accepted cultural mores:
From early onwards, such [school uniform] policies were tied to the disciplining of 'unruly', 'savage', 'untamed' bodies, that is, the bodies of those who were not able to perform self-regulation or self-government: women, Black, Indian, poor classes, immigrants, toddlers or infants. In nineteenth- and early twentieth-century United States, Indians and Blacks were the privileged targets of close surveillance in terms of what to wear and when to wear it. In particular, the introduction of uniforms in Federal Indian Boarding schools meant that tribal attire and moccasins were forbidden and strict measures were enforced to ensure that children wore 'civilized', Western clothes, including underwear (Dussel, 2005, p. 191).
Over time, school uniforms became associated with the children of power and privilege. They became a symbol of the opportunities that, at least according to some Marxist-inspired critics, were not available to those of the American middle and lower classes (Brunsma, 2004).
Whatever the truth of such analyses, it is beyond dispute that dress codes in general, and school uniforms in particular, became a prominent topic within the larger national discussion on education reform that took place in the 1980s and 1990s. With the decades-long distraction of the Cold War having ended and the recent upheaval caused by international terrorism, the 1990s was a time when American political and educational leaders turned inward and began to take stock of the public education system. What they saw—low academic standards, rising violence, and disenchanted teachers—was less than satisfactory. In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education proclaimed in the report, "A Nation at Risk" that "the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity" ("A Nation at Risk," 1983, para. 1).
On the other hand, private and religious schools in America were continuing to provide quality education and seemed largely immune to the systemic problems afflicting public schools. One of the most visible symbols of the private school, at least to many Americans and their elected officials, was the school uniform. While few considered them to be a panacea, parents, teachers, politicians, and school administrators began to see school uniforms as perhaps part of the answer to the problems afflicting America's public schools. The first known public elementary school in the United States to adopt a school uniform policy was Cherry Hill Elementary School in inner-city Baltimore in 1987.
The Long Beach Experiment
In 1994, the public school system in Long Beach, California, Unified School District was the first school district in the nation to adopt school uniforms for the 60,000 students in its 60 elementary schools and 15 middle schools, and Long Beach school officials then expanded the program to high schools as well. By the end of 1995, the school crime rate fell by 36 percent. In 1999, five years after the school uniform policy was implemented, its correlation with school-based crime was evident:
The quantitative outcomes of the policy have been remarkable. Crime report summaries for the five-year post-uniform policy period reflect that school crime overall had dropped approximately 86 percent, even though K–8 student enrollment increased 14 percent. The five categories of school crime where comparisons can be made between 1993 levels and 1999 levels are: (a) sex offenses down 93 percent (from 57 to 4 offenses); (b) robbery/extortion down 85 percent (from 34 to 5 cases); (c) selling or using chemical substances down 48 percent (from 71 to 37 cases); (d) weapons or look-a-likes down 75 percent (from 145 to 36 cases); and (e) dangerous devices down 96 percent (from 46 to 2 cases) (LBUSD, 1999; Lopez, 2003).
The apparent success of the Long Beach experiment attracted the notice of the Clinton Administration. Attorney General Janet Reno said in December 1995 that President Clinton believed that if uniforms can help fight school violence, they should be supported (as cited in "Two Cheers," 1995). According to Brunsma (2004), it was Clinton's January 1996 State of the Union Address that initiated a resurgence of interest in public school uniforms. Early in his speech, Clinton said, "I challenge all our schools to teach character education, to teach good values and good citizenship. And 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 school uniforms" (Clinton, 1996).
Clinton's speech touched on what was perceived to be the strongest argument for instituting a school uniform policy: the safety of teachers and students. In adopting a standard uniform, students would not be able to use clothes as a sign of power and privilege.
Reasons to Adopt School Uniform
Adopting school uniforms also eliminated gang colors: Gangs would use middle schools as recruitment centers, and members of rival gangs would proclaim their allegiance to the gang by wearing the gang's particular colors. According to Holding (2007), one school that revised its dress code to prohibit gang colors, Redwood Middle School in Napa Valley, California, saw palpable results. The school principal believed the uniforms were the direct catalyst for improved safety on campus.
Curiously, dress codes and school uniforms have found their most vocal advocates among minority groups, especially blacks, who are most directly and adversely impacted by school violence and declining educational opportunities. According to Dussel (2005), many black and Hispanic leaders saw school uniforms as a way to move, albeit symbolically, beyond a politics of failure and victimization toward a new day in which they reclaimed their schools and embraced their promise of a bright tomorrow:
School uniforms are being defended by minority leaders in the African-American and Latino communities as a way to construct collective identities and generate a new consensus on the need for better schooling…. Using other scholars' views of minority leaders' strategies, they could be read as part of a democratic movement to shape schooling as more respondent and sensitive to demands for recognition and social mobility (Dussel, 2005, p. 195).
At the end of the 1980s, less than 1 percent of elementary schools had uniforms. By the 1999–2000 school year, the number rose to 15 percent. By 2008, major cities such as Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas/Fort Worth, Detroit, Miami, New York, Houston, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. had a school uniform policy in the majority of their public schools. According to the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP), the fraction of American public schools requiring school uniforms rose from three percent in 1997 to one in five (21 percent) in 2000 (NAESP, 2002).
Even in those schools and school districts that didn't adopt school uniforms, political rumbling about a "rising tide of mediocrity" of public schools meant that existing dress codes were closely scrutinized to ensure that students were in a safe environment that was most conducive to learning. Within public school districts, 40 percent had dress codes in place by 1994 (Tyson, 1996). Milford High School in Milford, Massachusetts, is one of many schools that reworked its dress code. The school's principal at the time, John Brucato, outlined the school's clothing policy in 2005, which is indicative of the philosophy behind many dress codes in the nation:
We ask our students to dress and groom themselves as individuals with a sense of responsibility and self-respect. So, it's not a matter of what you must wear; it's more of a matter of what we don't feel is appropriate. Specifically, if it becomes disruptive, offensive, threatening, or provocative to others, is vulgar, displays tobacco or alcohol advertising, profanity, racial slurs, has disruptive images of gang-related symbols (as cited in Anderson, n.d.).
By 2013, the Milford High School dress code had been adjusted to reflect a focus on the expectation of additional schooling or a future career for students after graduation from high school. The message, while more succinct, is much the same as it was eight years previously:
“The Dress Code of Milford High School is designed to help students recognize choices regarding attire that would be appropriate in thehir future workplace as well as in an educational setting. Students are expected to dress, groom, and attire themselves in a manner that is not potentially dangerous, does not distract others or disrupt education, and does not convey a message contrary to District policy” (Milford High School, 2013).
Like school uniforms, today's school dress codes are a product of concern over what's perceived to be the rising tide of public school violence, epitomized by such well-publicized public school shootings such as that perpetrated at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999. At the turn of the twenty-first...
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