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Clothes v. Crime

The debate over mandatory uniforms in public school has been going on for several years.  Many opponents of the policy believe it is a violation of students’ First Amendment rights to free speech and expression.  Others oppose the policy for religious reasons.  And there are those who believe the implementation of the policy would place a financial burden on lower income families.  While these are legitimate concerns, the recent increase in crime and school violence calls for serious action.   Numerous school districts have already implemented a mandatory school uniform policy with positive results.  Based on these results and the need to provide children with a safer and more disciplined learning environment, school uniforms should be required in all public schools. 

            In most cases, school uniforms are less expensive than clothing children normally wear to school.  School uniforms normally cost between $20 and $40 (Manual).  When all students are required to wear the same clothing to school, they are no longer competing with each other to see who is wearing the latest designer clothing or the most expensive shoes.  Therefore, parents are relieved of the financial burden of constantly providing new clothing for their children.  Furthermore, school officials in Seattle, Washington, also believe the durability, reusability, and year-to-year consistency increase the affordability of the uniform policy (Manual).  Of course, there are situations when purchasing school uniforms may prove to be too expensive for some families.  Fortunately, most school districts are able to provide financial assistance to families in those situations.  For example, in Phoenix, Arizona, a grant from a local foundation covers the cost of uniforms for families who are unable to afford them.  In Seattle, Washington, local businesses contribute financial support to the uniform program.  Lastly, in Kansas City, Missouri, students who are unable to afford uniforms are provided uniforms at no cost.  The state and school district pay for the uniforms with school funding.  In addition, many graduating students donate or sell used uniforms to needy families (Manual).

            The implementation of the mandatory school uniform policy also provides students with a more disciplined and productive learning environment.  Many school districts with the policy in place have reported an increase in attendance rates.  In addition, some school districts reported higher student achievement levels.  In Long Beach, California, attendance in Kindergarten through 8th grade rose to an all-time high of 94 percent within three years of the policy going into effect (Portner).  In a recent survey of 958 elementary and middle school principals from ten states, those with school uniforms policies in place rated attendance levels at 48 percent.  While this appears to be low, schools without the policy rated attendance levels at only 36 percent.  Schools with the uniform policy also rated student achievement levels at 52 percent while schools without the policy rated student achievement at only 45 percent.  The most dramatic differences between the schools were within the areas of classroom discipline and school spirit.  School spirit was rated 20 percent higher in schools with the policy in place.  While classroom discipline was rated 16 percent higher (Graphic).    The uniform policy has directly contributed to these increases by preventing some of the distractions in the classroom and helping teachers focus their students on learning.  It also leads to students focusing more on their schoolwork and less on what other students are wearing.

            School violence continues to be a very serious problem in public schools.  Anyone doubting the seriousness of the problem need only look back to the massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.  On 20 April 1999, two students, armed with guns and bombs, entered the Columbine High School and started shooting.  The two students, members of a gang know as the Trench-Coat Mafia, proceeded to kill 12 students and one teacher.  Twenty-three students were wounded, several of them critically (Bai).  While the mandatory uniform policy may not have prevented this tragedy, it may have prevented the students from entering the school while concealing rifles and other weapons under their now infamous black trench coats.  Furthermore, it is possible that the Trench-Coat Mafia might never have existed if the school had previously implemented a mandatory uniform policy.  In another incident, three students in Detroit, Michigan, were stabbed in February 1998 during a feud about whose designer clothing looked the best (Merx).  Unfortunately, these types of incidents are no longer uncommon occurrences.  During the school year 1998-1999, a total of 28 students were killed while attending school in America (National).  In response to the alarming increase of school violence, President Bill Clinton stated in a recent radio address:  “If it means that teen-agers will stop killing each other over designer jackets, then our public schools should be able to require their students to wear uniforms” (Hudson “School”).

            While the implementation of a mandatory school uniform policy will not remove the possibility of violence in our schools, it has been proven to provide a safer learning environment for students.  The uniform policy has directly assisted in the prevention of violence and crime in schools by preventing students from wearing gang colors and insignia.  Teachers were then able to focus their efforts more on education and less on discipline.  In Long Beach, California, officials found that in the year following the implementation of the school uniform policy, overall school crime decreased 35 percent.  They also reported that fights had decreased 51 percent, sex offenses decreased 74 percent, weapons offenses decreased 50 percent, assault and battery offenses decreased 34 percent, and vandalism decreased 18 percent.  According to the Long Beach Police Chief William Ellis, “Schools have fewer reasons to call the police.  There’s less conflict among students.  Students concentrate more on education, not on who’s wearing $100 shoes or gang attire” (Manual).  These results are not uncommon.  In Norfolk, Virginia, schools with the policy reported significant improvements in student’s behavior.  They reported that incidents of students leaving class without permission decreased 47 percent, students throwing objects in class decreased 68 percent, and fighting decreased 38 percent (Manual). 

            While the mandatory school uniform policy obviously restricts what students are allowed to wear to school, it is not an infringement on their First Amendment rights of freedom of speech or expression.  The courts have repeatedly ruled in favor of school districts that have implemented the policy.  On 3 June 1999, in Connecticut, a Superior Court Judge refused to halt the enforcement of the policy in Byars v. City of Waterbury.  The judge ruled: “The Waterbury school attire policy is rationally related to the Waterbury Board of Education’s legitimate interests in protecting the health and safety of the students in its schools and eliminating distractions or disruptions in the classroom”  (Hudson “Connecticut”).  Likewise, in Bossier City, Louisiana, a federal judge dismissed the case of Canaday v. Bossier Parish School Board.  The judge ruled the school board’s mandatory school uniform policy was not a violation of students’ First Amendment rights to free speech, free and open expression and religious freedom (Hudson “Parents”).  Furthermore, on 27 July 1999, the Tennessee Attorney General ruled, “There is no constitutional impediment to the use of reasonable dress codes.  Such regulations do not implicate constitutional issues such as equal protection, due process, privacy or the First Amendment (Hudson “Tennessee”).

            In addition to Court rulings, there are many other reasons why the uniform policy does not violate the First Amendment rights of student.  Most school districts include an “opt out” provision in their uniform policy (Manual).  This provision allows parents the opportunity to waive the requirement for their child to wear a school uniform.  With this provision, parents who are opposed to their children wearing school uniforms for religious or philosophical reasons can “opt-out” of the school uniform requirement.  In addition to the “opt-out” provision, students are normally permitted to display religious items or messages on their clothing.  They can also wear expressive items, such as buttons and pins, as long as they are not a disruptive influence on other students (Manual).  There are also other ways for students to express themselves other than their clothing.  After all, a person’s individuality is not based solely on the clothing or shoes that they wear.  Lastly, students are only required to wear school uniforms at school.  Students can continue to wear whatever they choose after school, on the weekends, and during the summer.  They can even choose their own clothing when attending school functions after normal school hours. 

            The debate on mandatory school uniforms will no doubt continue to escalate.  Parents who oppose the policy should be commended for expressing their genuine concern about the rights of their children.  However, they should be concerned about the safety and development of their children as well.  As President Bill Clinton stated, “If student uniforms can help deter school violence, promote discipline, and foster a better learning environment, then we should offer our strong support to the schools and parents that try them” (Clinton).  While the implementation of the school uniform policy will not eliminate all the problems facing public schools today, the overwhelmingly favorable results the policy has had on school districts across America cannot be ignored.  Based on these results and the need to provide our children with a safer and more disciplined learning environment, the policy should be implemented in all public schools across America. 

 

Bai, Matt. “Anatomy of a Massacre” Newsweek 7 May 2000. 7 May 2000            <http://www.newsweek.com/nw-srv/printed/us/na/na0218_1.htm.>

Clinton, William. “Memorandum for the Secretary of Education” 5 May 2000. 7 May 2000 <http://www.ed.gov/PressReleases/02-1996/whpr26.html.>

 “Graphic:  Perceptions and school uniforms” Education Week on the Web 26 April 2000. 26 April 2000 <http://www.edweek.org/context/topics/gallery/uniform1.htm.>

Hudson, David. “Connecticut school district tightens dress code policy” The Freedom Forum Online 26 April 2000. 26 April 2000 <http://www.freedomforum.org/speech/1999/8/6waterbury.asp.>

---. “Parents across the South battle mandatory school dress codes” The Freedom Forum Online 26 April 2000. 26 April 2000          <http://www.freedomforum.org/speech/1999/8/17wilson.asp.>

 ---. “School uniforms address discipline, learning issues” The Freedom Forum Online 26 April 2000. 26 April 2000 <http://www.freedomforum.org/speech/1998/3/27uniforms.asp.>

 ---. “Tennessee official: ‘Reasonable’ dress codes don’t violate First Amendment” The Freedom Forum Online 26 April 2000. 26 April 2000            <http://www.freedomforum.org/speech/1999/8/5dresscode.asp.>

 Manual on School Uniforms.” 29 February 1996. 26 April 2000 <http://www.ed.gov/updates/uniforms.html.>

Merx, Katie. “School violence gets priority” The Detroit News 08 May 2000. 8 May 2000 <http://detroitnews.com/1999/classrooms/9903/18/03170161.htm.>

National School Safety Center. “The National School Safety Center’s Report on School Associated Violent Deaths” 19 April 2000. 7 May 2000            <http://www.nssc1.org.>

Portner, Jessica. “Calif. District Points to Uniforms For Plunging Crime Rate” Education Week on the Web 26 April 2000. 26 April 2000 <http://www.edweek.org/ewvol-17/19long. h17.>

 

 

 

 

 

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Last modified: November 19, 2001