Uniforms and Dress-Code Policies (page 3)

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

According to the Manual on School Uniforms (U.S. Department of Education 1996), policies will be more likely to succeed and be accepted by all constituents if the following steps are taken:

  1. Get parents involved from the beginning.
  2. Protect students’ religious expression.
  3. Protect students’ other rights of expression.
  4. Determine whether to have a voluntary or mandatory school-uniform policy.
  5. When a mandatory policy is adopted, determine whether to have an opt-out provision.
  6. Do not require students to wear a message.
  7. Assist families that need financial help.
  8. Treat school uniforms as part of an overall safety program.

The manual emphasizes that most districts with mandatory uniform policies permit students to opt out with parental consent. If a mandatory uniform policy is adopted without an opt-out provision, districts may "be vulnerable to legal challenge" unless they can show that other less dramatic steps would fail to alleviate a "disruptive learning environment."

Recently, however, the Arizona Court of Appeals "held that an opt out provision is not required" (Starr 2000). Starr contends that this ruling means uniform policies may be more successful in public high schools—where they are needed to combat violence—than previously thought possible.

According to NAESP, "many states have established guidelines and/or legislation on dress codes and uniforms at public schools" (NAESP). Information on state policies regarding uniforms and dress codes can be obtained at the Education Commission of the States website (

What Does the Research Suggest?

Both those in favor of and those opposed to school uniforms cite data to bolster their respective positions. However, according to White, "Research on the effects of school uniforms has been inconclusive or mixed." Much of the "evidence" on both sides is anecdotal, not empirical. The survey of principals conducted by NAESP seems to bear this out. It found that although some schools maintain statistics, most rely primarily on informal observations by principals and staff to ascertain whether uniforms are making a difference.

The weakness of anecdotal evidence is that people may attribute specific positive (or negative) effects to uniforms based on changes they observe following the implementation of a uniform policy. However, unless other variables are controlled for, it is possible that the changes are really the result of other factors, not the uniforms.

A study of middle school students in the Charleston (SC) School District found that school uniforms did appear to alter students’ perceptions of school climate (Wilson). Students attending district schools that required uniforms viewed their school climates more positively than did students enrolled in schools where uniforms were not mandatory.

What Alternative Approaches Have Been Suggested?

Since many school administrators and policymakers view uniforms as part of a violence-prevention package, the ACLU polled high school students to solicit their ideas about how to address school violence. Their suggestions included the following: (1) Confront and discuss issues of racism and cultural conflict, (2) institute "safe corridor" programs to protect students on their way to and from school, (3) secure school entrances, (4) establish more extracurricular activities and clubs, (5) hold open-mike assemblies where students can express themselves, (6) establish programs to help students find part-time jobs, and (7) teach conflict-resolution techniques (Siegel). Those polled did not feel that restrictive dress codes or uniforms would be helpful in reducing violence (Siegel).

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