Uniforms and Dress-Code Policies (page 2)
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?
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).
Reprinted with the permission of the Education Resources Information Center.