"School Uniforms: Prevention or Suppression?"
 
by Raymond F. Felch III

Consider the following excerpts from the Presidentís Radio Address to the Nation;

"This morning I want to talk with you about what we can do to break hold of gangs and violence in our schools and what we can do to create an atmosphere in our schools that promotes discipline and order and learning ... I believe we should give strong support to school districts that decide to require young students to wear school uniforms. Weíve all seen the tragic headlines screaming of the death of a teenager who was killed for a pair of sneakers or jewelry or a designer jacket. In Detroit, a 15-year old boy was shot for his $86 basketball shoes. In Fort Lauderdale, a 15-year old student was robbed of his jewelry. Just this past December in Oxon Hill, Maryland, a 17-year old honor student was killed at a bus stop, caught in the cross fire during the robbery of another students designer jacket" (Clinton, "Transcript," 1-2).

Why are we proposing to mandate school uniforms for all elementary and middle schools students, while at the same time excluding high school students? Is it not obvious, by the Presidentís own accounting, that the problem group is teenage students ages 15 and older? Moreover, is there any indisputable evidence that school uniforms can help cure societyís violence and disciplinary problems? How reliable are the statistics that show the short term implementation of school uniforms in a select group of elementary and middle schools prevents violence? Knowing all of this, are we still willing to freely give up more of our God given constitutional rights? Worse yet, by accepting this proposal, are we saying that we are in favor of stifling the creativity and individuality of our children?

The Department of Education, in consultation with the Department of Justice, and under the direction of President Clinton, has developed the Manual of School Uniforms. On February 24, 1996, President Clinton signed a directive to distribute this manual to the Nationís 1600 public school districts (Clinton, "Text," 2). Furthermore, the leaders of our schools appear to have hastily embraced this new proposal. A recent national survey of 5,500 secondary school principals shows that they feel school uniforms would help eliminate violence (Tousignant 1). Shawn Ashley, principal in the Long Beach Unified School District, claims there have been fewer incidents of fighting since they imposed the mandatory school uniform policy one year ago. Ashley reports that incidents of fighting has dropped from 1,135 in the 1993-94 school year, to only 554 for the 1994-95 school year (Kennedy 1). Clearly, this is an issue that affects parents across the nation, and should be carefully examined before giving our unconditional support. I believe that any proposal is dangerous if it fails to address the real problem, threatens to diminish our constitutional rights and has been promoted by using misleading statistics.

There is no question that school uniforms can instill a feeling of school spirit, school pride and social acceptance. When compared to designer clothes and name brand basketball shoes, school uniforms can also be a cost effective solution to school wear. Surely, this is an appealing benefit to those families that find it difficult, if not impossible, to afford such luxuriance. Certainly, parents will find that it is easier to shop for their childrenís school attire, and the students will be able to quickly choose their outfits for school in the morning.

Unfortunately, as well served as this proposal may appear, school uniforms can not solve the nationís problems of gang violence. Clearly, these deeply rooted problems are well beyond the scope of any school uniform policy. Furthermore, mandating this policy only at the elementary and middle school level does nothing to curb gang violence occurring at the high schools across our country. As Loren Siegel, Director of the Public Education Department, ACLU, points out, school administrators and teachers have been reluctant to impose the school uniform policy on high school students, because it most certainly will cause the teenagers to rebel (Siegel 1). Cecilia Smith, a guidance counselor at Forestville High School in Prince Georgeís, tells of how teenage students rebelled when school uniforms were tried at their school. Smith explains that the teenagers were rebelling because they were afraid that "it was going to take their individuality away" (Tousignant 2).

Also, Siegel argues that younger children can be persuaded to wear school uniforms. Some children may even like the idea of school uniforms and the feeling of being part of the school community. Unfortunately, teenagers are at a point in their lives where expressing their individuality is extremely important. She describes teenagers as young people that are striving to express uniqueness in many different ways. Siegel cleverly shows that the teenagers are already in uniforms of their own choosing -- baggy pants, T-shirts and baseball caps worn backward (Siegel 1). Clearly, there is no way that school administrators, teachers and parents could expect the proposed school uniform policy to be imposed at the high school level.

Up until now, we have discussed why a school uniform policy is futile in preventing gang violence in our schools. This however, is not the only problem with the school uniform policy. We still need to examine the effect that such a proposal would have on our constitutional rights.

Recently, the A.C.L.U. represented twenty-six families in a school uniform lawsuit against the Long Beach Unified School District. Although the case resulted in an out-of-court settlement, and both sides tentatively agreed to certain provisions, this case raised important issues concerning our legal rights. Barbara Bernstein, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, reaffirmed the opinion of the A.C.L.U. when she stated that requiring school uniforms is not only illegal, it is not the solution to the school systemís problems. Clearly, Bernstein was in favor of President Clintonís goal, calling it "admirable;" however she pointed out that it should not be "accomplished at the expense of constitutional rights" (McCarthey 2). Surely, the Long Beach lawsuit has been instrumental in raising the publicís awareness of the legal ramifications associated with adopting the school uniform proposal.

One important aspect caused by the litigation surrounding the school uniform policy is the "opt out" provision. As a condition of the Long Beach settlement, the school district will attempt to improve the communication with parents and provide improved exemption procedures. The relevance of this provision is clearly demonstrated by the reference made in the Manual of School Uniforms, Item #5: "When a mandatory school uniform policy is adopted, determine whether to have an Ďopt outí provision" ("Manual" 2). The reference in this manual instructs the school administrators on how to provide parents with an exemption from the policy. In some cases, the parents can "opt" to have their children go to another school. In the case where all of the schools in the district require uniforms, as is the case in the Long Beach Unified School District, the parents can "opt" to send their children to school without uniforms ("Manual" 2). In any case, the inclusion of this provision in President Clintonís Manual of School Uniforms shows a genuine concern that a mandatory policy may infringe on our constitutional rights.

Obviously, one would have to agree that a school uniform policy can do little to fight gang violence in our schools. Furthermore, we should all be in agreement that a mandatory school uniform policy is considered unconstitutional. These issues however, are not the only ones surrounding the school uniform proposal. To gain an overall understanding of the problem, discussion of the misleading statistics used in promoting this policy is necessary.

In order to emphasis his position on the school uniform proposal and its apparent effectiveness, President Clinton draws attention to the Long Beach Unified School District as the model system. As Siegel points out, in an obvious attempt to demonstrate its success, President Clinton misleadingly reports the Long Beach Schoolís self-generated data showing decreases in student misconduct. Unfortunately, there was no mention of the other steps taken by the School District to improve school behavior during the experimental year. Siegel reports, at the same time the school uniform policy was implemented, the District began "increasing the number of teachers patrolling the hallways during class changes" (Siegel 1). Clearly, no one can be sure which change had the most effect on student behavior. Furthermore, we need to remember who the gate-keeper of this conclusive data is. Could the school administrators, in an attempt to promote the effectiveness of their new policy and in light of the national attention it had drawn, have possibly overlooked certain infractions during the year?

Whereas, the reliability of the Long Beach case study is clearly questionable, we must also examine the effects of other changes made at the state level across the nation. Craig Donegan, editor for Congressional Quarterly, reports a 1995 survey by the National Conference of Mayors indicating there has been an increase in the number of youth curfews by 45 percent since 1990. Donegan also acknowledges that a recent National Governorís Association (NGA) report states that between 1992 and 1994 there have been 27 states that have passed laws making it easier to prosecute children as adults (Donegan 2). In addition, Senator John Ashcroft enacted the Violent and Hardcore Juvenile Offender Reform Act of 1995 (Donegan 1). Ashcroft also indicated that he wants the funding of the Juvenile Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 to be contingent upon states prosecuting juveniles age 14 and up as adults. Many cities and states have adopted laws that hold the parents of delinquent children accountable for their chldrenís behavior (Donegan 2). Clearly, there have been many changes made at the national, state and local levels which have been attributed to having a positive effect on juvenile violence. Regardless of these changes, there is very little correlation between requiring school uniforms at the elementary and middle school levels, and the recent reduction in teenage violence at our high schools.

In conclusion, the failure to address the real problem of violence in our schools, itís impact on our constitutional rights and the misleading manner in which it has been proposed, clearly illustrates why we should avert from an unconditional acceptance of the mandatory school uniform policy. It is very clear that we have a serious juvenile violence problem in our country, and positive efforts are constantly being made to alleviate the problem. However, we should not fall victim to the illusion that requiring school uniforms for children under the age of 14 can prevent this teenage violence. Likewise, we need to remember that our constitution insures our right to creativity. We have an obligation to insure that our children are allowed to grow, to be creative and to be independent thinkers. Finally, there has not been any official case studies conducted that prove that school uniforms can prevent teenage violence. The disseminated and relaxed data, which has been so cleverly capitalized upon by our administrators, is inconclusive at best. Our tendency to unconditionally accept a school uniform proposal is just one more example of societyís apathetic approach to problem solving. We all need to take a more active role when addressing issues that concern the rights and welfare of our family.

Bibliography

Clinton, William J. Text of Presidential Memo to Secretary of Education on School Uniforms
        Washington DC: U.S. Newswire, 1996.

Clinton, William J. Transcript of Presidential Radio Address to the Nation.
        Washington DC: U.S. Newswire, 1996.

Donegan, Craig "Crackdowns Favored Over Prevention of Juvenile Crime"
        Congressional Quarterly - Scripps Howard News Service April 3, 1996.

Kennedy, J. Michael "Common Denominator: Schools See Less Violence When Kids Wear Uniforms"
        Los Angeles Times August 21, 1995.

"Manual on School Uniforms" Department of Education, Congress February 29, 1996.

McCarthey, Molly "Uniform Proposal Doesnít Wear Well" Newsday March 4, 1996.

Siegel, Loren "Point of View: School Uniforms" A.C.L.U. March 1, 1996.

Tousignant, Marylou "Trying Uniforms on for Size" Washington Post. March 1, 1996.

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