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Uniforms and Dress-Code Policies (page 2)

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

People who oppose uniforms point to "unnecessary routinization, violations of students’ First Amendment rights, authoritarian regimentation, extraordinary expenditures on special clothing, an environmental tone that is harmful to education and learning, and a cosmetic solution to deeper societal problems" (Brown).

Students’ First Amendment right to freedom of expression, and whether it is being unduly abridged, is one of the fundamental issues raised. Several legal challenges have asserted that students’ freedom to select what to wear to school is a form of self-expression that schools are not entitled to interfere with.

The lack of conclusive evidence concerning whether uniforms or restrictive dress policies really have a positive impact is also cited by opponents. Loren Siegel, director of the Public Education Department for the American Civil Liberties Union, points out that whereas the Long Beach School District claims uniforms resulted in a reduction in certain forms of student misconduct and improved student achievement, a causal relationship may not exist (http://www.aclu.org/congress/uniform.html). Since other changes were instituted about the same time the uniform policy was put into effect (for example, teacher supervision in halls was increased and new content standards were adopted), it is difficult to determine which variables were actually responsible for the subsequent drop in misbehavior.

Siegel also points out that "virtually every uniform policy in the country" applies only to elementary and/or middle school students, not to high school students, despite the fact that uniforms are portrayed as a way to curb teen violence. Attempts have rarely been made to implement uniforms at the high school level, where noncompliance would almost certainly be a more significant issue.

What Legal Issues Should Administrators Be Aware Of?

Lane and colleagues (1996) report that although the courts have issued "inconsistent and ambiguous" rulings on dress codes, "the federal courts consistently have upheld the school district’s right to establish regulations for the day-to-day operations of schools." While uniform policies have faced opposition, "lawsuits have in general failed in the courts," according to Patten and Siegrist (2000).

When developing a dress-code policy, the school should specify how the policy relates to its ability to educate students in a safe, orderly environment. In one case, the court ruled that it is unconstitutional for school districts to restrict what students can wear simply on the basis of taste and style (Lane and others). On the other hand, "school policies that prohibit wearing clothing or symbols linked to gangs have traditionally been upheld by the courts" (Brown). According to Brown, when "issues of health, safety, and potential disturbance of the learning environment" drive the adoption of strict dress codes or mandatory uniform policies, the courts may be more apt to rule in favor of schools if their policies are legally challenged.

To successfully defend a mandatory uniform policy against constitutional challenges, a district must ensure that its dress code is related to the school’s pedagogical purpose, allows students alternative means of expressing their views, and is a content-neutral (rather than a content-based) regulation of student expression (Simonson 1998). Dress codes are considered a permissible regulation of student expression because the classroom is considered a nonpublic, rather than a public, forum (Simonson).

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