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Uniforms and Dress-Code Policies

By — Educational Resource Information Center (U.S. Department of Education)
Updated on Feb 18, 2011

Does the old adage "clothes make the man" apply to in the school? That is, can the way students dress have an impact on such things as school climate and safety, academic success, and behavior? Some administrators think so and have tightened up student dress codes or begun requiring students to wear uniforms as a way of reducing the risk of violence and creating a positive, productive learning environment.

The National Association of Elementary School Principals points out that uniforms once were the trademark of a private or parochial school; today "the number of public schools adopting uniforms and strong dress codes is growing annually" (NAESP 2000). In a national survey of elementary and middle school principals conducted by NAESP in May 2000, 10 percent of the 755 respondents "said that their schools already had adopted a uniform policy and another 11 percent were considering the concept" (NAESP).

This Digest discusses why some schools are changing their dress-code policies, outlines issues raised by proponents and opponents, looks at legal considerations, touches upon research findings, and offers some suggestions from students about other ways to promote safety in schools.

Why Are Some Schools Requiring Uniforms or Tightening Dress-Code Policies?

Concerns about school violence have led to increased interest in and acceptance of uniform policies, which specify what must be worn, or strict dress codes, which identify prohibited attire. Ronald D. Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center, states, "In the wake of school shootings, communities and schools are much more willing to embrace uniforms as well as a number of other strategies to enhance student safety" (White 2000).

Even before the recent series of school shootings, a survey of principals conducted by the National Association of Secondary School Principals found strong support for uniforms. Seventy percent of the 5,500 principals surveyed at NASSP’s 1996 annual conference said they believed "requiring students to wear uniforms to school would reduce violent incidents and discipline problems" (Brown 1998).

In addition to having a sense that uniforms may aid in violence prevention, many administrators "believe that uniforms will reduce discipline referrals, while improving attendance, achievement, self esteem, and school climate" (Brown).

Curbing gang-related problems was the primary goal of the Long Beach (CA) Unified School District when, in 1994, it began requiring students in all its elementary and middle schools to wear uniforms. In the Dysart Unified School District outside Phoenix, Arizona, eliminating "some of the stigma associated with clothes" was the main motivation behind the adoption of uniforms (White).

Potential benefits attributed to school uniforms include improved discipline, increased respect for teachers, increased school attendance, fewer distractions, improved academic performance, increased self-esteem and confidence, lower overall clothing costs, promotion of group spirit, reduction in social stratification and fashion statements, improved classroom behavior, lower rates of school crime and violence, and easy identification of nonstudents (Brown).

What Objections Have Been Raised in Regard to the Policies?
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