SCHOOL UNIFORMS: Does What Students Wear Really Make A Difference?

Russell E. Eppinger

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Are school uniforms a false remedy for serious underlying issues in public schools? Are we making an attempt to return to the 1950’s, when boys’ hair was not permitted to touch their collars and girls wore knee-length skirts? This paper will explore the various aspects of the incorporation of a school uniform policy in public schools. This study will also examine the positive and negative assumptions that are involved in the school uniform controversy.

The last forty years in public education has seen many changes in school dress. Students are generally permitted in most present day public schools to choose what to wear to school with limited restraints. At the same time, as most school districts allow students all this freedom, schools are viewed by the public as a panacea for the ills of society. Schools are expected to solve all of America’s social, economic, and political problems (Perkinson, 1995.) Yet with this freedom, schools are also expected to operate a well-disciplined, structured environment that is conducive to learning.

The overwhelming majority of students wear jeans and sneakers in present day public schools. On warm days, many female students wear clothes that are immodest and provocative. Many students wear pierced jewelry virtually everywhere — from their eyebrows to their navels. It is not unusual for students to dye their hair pink or green or multi-colored.

The disaster at Columbine High School in Colorado a year ago revealed a dress code where students were permitted to wear trench coats, excessive jewelry and make-up, and eccentric hair styles and clothing. The Columbine incident alone stimulates argument that the lack of a dress code may affect the level of safety in a school. If students were not permitted to wear coats, it would be more difficult to conceal weapons. However, a statement could also be made that the incident at Columbine High would have happened anyway, with or without a mandatory dress code for its students.

Background of the Controversy

In recent years, school districts have been permitted to institute dress codes. President Clinton, in his 1996 State of the Union address, endorsed school uniforms in public schools (Evans, 1996.) The Pennsylvania school code, section 510, states that the board of school directors in any school district may adopt and enforce reasonable rules and regulations as it may deem necessary and proper regarding the management of its school affairs. Paliokas (1996) stated that legal trends suggest that the courts are willing to defer to school authorities regarding dress codes.

There are school districts that have established written dress codes. Other school districts have established dress code policies which include the wearing of school uniforms. Many school districts have opted not to get involved in a dress uniform situation for many reasons. Not everyone is enthusiastic about the use of school uniforms in public schools. Opponents of school uniforms argue that the wearing of school uniforms is cosmetic at best and will not change the way a child learns (McCarthy, 1996).

Uniforms were once the trademarks of private and parochial schools. But public schools have recently shown a marked increase in the number of schools that have adopted uniform policies. The National Association of Elementary School Principals has reported that 10% of public school principals surveyed reported that their schools had adopted a uniform policy. There were another 11% who were strongly considering adopting such a policy. According to the NAESP survey, principals felt that school uniforms offered many positive benefits to their students. Students are able to stay more focused and disciplined throughout the school day. Principals reported that children often feel less social pressure when everyone in the school dresses the same way. Uniforms act as social equalizers. Students who can not be fashionable due to limited family finances are made to feel more comfortable among their peers (2000 NAESP Survey.)

The interest in outfitting public school students in uniforms is not a new concept. In inner-city schools, the trend for wearing uniforms actually began in the 1980’s. Cities such as Miami, Detroit, and Baltimore have experimented with uniforms for their students at the elementary and middle school levels. Seventy-four percent of the students in the Baltimore city schools wear uniforms to school everyday. A liason to the Superintendent in Baltimore, Justin Wood, claims that uniform wearing has eliminated brand-name envy and peer teasing of students who can not afford designer clothing. (Curriculum Review, 1994.) Cities in ten different states have given uniforms a try at their elementary and middle school levels (Stanley, 1996.)

The push for school uniforms raises issues of student self-expression: earrings on boys, short skirts on girls, or t-shirts that carry a message. Are fads and oddities such as these a form of student self-expression? These questions are raised as more school officials want to promote discipline and school pride through dress codes and uniforms (Freedom Forum First Amendment Center, 1996.) In the 1996 case, Tinker vs. Des Moines School District, the Supreme Court upheld the right of high school and junior high school students to wear black armbands protesting the Vietnam War. The court upheld that students do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate." The ACLU states that requiring school uniforms is a meaningless response to the problem of school violence. Nathan Hentoff, longtime advocate for student rights, objects strenuously to uniforms and dress codes, which he calls "problematic." (Mauro, 1996.) If the Tinker case applies, then the rule is, does this expression interfere with the ordinary processes of the schools? (First Amendment Center, 2000.)

Analysis of the Controversy

Claybaugh and Rozycki (1977) have determined that a controversy can not exist without a fundamental dispute. The answer to the school uniform debate is not a simple yes or no answer. There is no clear consensus as to the benefits of school uniforms.

The controversy over school uniforms may be argued on both sides of the debate. Some children and parents feel that school uniforms stifle a child’s creativity. The other side of the dispute purports that creativity is expressed in many ways and has little to do with what you are wearing. (McMillan, 2000.)

School uniform supporters are enthusiastic about the positive changes that have been observed in students who wear school uniforms. The wearing of uniforms affects students’ perceptions of school climate. Students are made to feel as if they are a part of a team by wearing a uniform. School climate is improved considerably because kids perceive that they fit in because they look like everybody else (Kaiser, 1985.) If students were dressed in uniforms, there would also not be the distraction of revealing clothing that often appears in the hallways of our public schools (Harrod, 1997.)

School districts are searching for answers in order to improve school climate and test scores. The biggest deterrent to a healthy school climate may be the lack of discipline and respect. The absence of a well-disciplined student body is a major problem in many school districts (Curriculum Review, 1994.) This is true in suburbs as well as cities. Too many students are preoccupied with how they look and what they wear, rather than their studies. Schools have become a stage for the latest fashion parade, deflecting away the attention from learning and achieving educational goals (LaPoint, 1993.)

School uniforms can create a sense of togetherness in a school building. This sense of togetherness can convey to the tax-paying public that schools are well managed because the students are under control due to their dress (Peters, 1996.) There is more of a socio-economic balance among the students with the wearing of uniforms. Students who attempt to make fashion statements through the wearing of designer clothing are virtually neutralized. School spirit is enhanced because a feeling of togetherness is created. The gap between the "haves" and the "have-nots" is narrowed due to uniforms (LaPoint, 1993.) Uniforms create social harmony due to the uniform look of similarly clothed students (Kaiser, 1985.)

Proponents of school uniforms claim that school safety would be improved through a mandatory uniform policy. Gang type clothing would be eliminated. Crimes such as theft of expensive clothing or footwear would be substantially reduced (McDaniel, 1996.) Intruders in school buildings could easily be spotted if all the students were wearing a similar style of dress (Forbes, 1994.).

Supporters of uniforms contend that the wearing of school uniforms affects students’ perception of school climate. Students feel as though they are part of a team, and according to Keith King of the University of Cincinnati, "The number one protective factor against school violence is having students feel connected to their school and that they fit in." (Wingert, 1999.) Student respect for teachers, administrators, and especially for each other would be improved with the institution of a mandatory uniform dress code. The sense of togetherness that a uniform policy would instill in a school can not be overstated. If students were all dressed in a similar fashion, the "playing field would be leveled." Each and every student would be similar. The students would spend more time concentrating on their school work, rather than on what their friends or they are wearing. There would be less ridicule of students due to their inability to dress in a style acceptable to the "in-crowd" (Manual on School Uniforms, 2000.)

With the high cost of clothing today, school uniforms can lift a financial burden from students’ families. The cost of designer clothing, and especially footwear, is expensive (Timely Tips: School Uniforms Debate, 2000.) School uniforms can be purchased at one-third the cost of most school outfits that are purchased in department stores. Three school uniforms can be purchased for under a hundred dollars.

School uniforms would assist students and parents in other ways. Students would learn to appreciate the elimination of so many choices when getting dressed for a school day. Students would not be tardy for school as often because of the indecision about what to wear in the mornings (Showalter, 1997.) Parents would know that what a student puts on in the morning is what they would wear at school. Students sometimes change to other outfits once their parents leave for work. Uniforms promote a "down to business" atmosphere because kids view them as work clothes rather than play clothes. Therefore, they take school more seriously than before the uniform code was instituted (Kaiser, 1985.)

There are arguments against the wearing of school uniforms. By mandating uniforms, gang members would be camouflaged within the school population, with no outwardly visible sign to alert school personnel. It has also been suggested that uniforms would undermine efforts by many schools to understand and appreciate diversity (Howe, 1996.) In a Long Beach, California study, 80% of the middle school students indicated that fights would not be reduced because of uniforms. 68% felt that uniforms did not help them become a part of the school. 71.2% stated they did not feel safer going to and from school because of uniforms (Stanley, 1996.) This Long Beach study also revealed that the very people who were affected by the uniform policy were not involved in the planning process. Students and parents need to be made a part of the selection process when choosing school uniforms. Choices should be stylish and attractive, making them acceptable and likable by kids (Curriculum Review, 1994.)

It is also possible that adult perceptions regarding student behavior, and even some adult responses to student behavior such as imposing school suspensions or other forms of discipline, may reflect adult responses to student behavior to the wearing of uniforms, rather than the actual changes in behavior (Stanley, 1996.) Nine year old Olivia Ryan, clad in her New York City uniform, may have summed it up best about wearing uniforms. She says, "I don’t really think that they’re going to act better because of what you’re wearing. You’re still the same person inside. You’re just wearing something different." (New York Amsterdam News, 1998.)

When students wear uniforms, it removes the visual cue counselors and educators rely on to gain insight into what might be happening in a student’s life. A drastic change in the way a student dresses often indicates underlying problems that may need to be addressed. Self-selected student clothing acts as a barometer, indicating personal feelings and potential problems. A mandated uniform would definitely camouflage what the individual choice of clothing could reveal (King, 1998.)

Uniforms may not save parents as much money as many people would like to believe. Uniforms do not eliminate the need for clothing needed for outside school. Students many times wear their school clothing the rest of the day once they are home from school. Sneakers, jackets, boots, casual clothing, and more will still be needed. What may first appear to be economical, may not in reality, be accurate. (Pottlitt, 1998.)

As far as uniforms clouding the socio-economic background of students, there will always be ways to impress others with a person’s economic status in life. What a person wears is a prime indicator of their economic standing. "Economic distinctions are part of the fabric of our society, and they will not be unraveled by covering them with a uniform." (Evans, 1996.)

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has argued that due to a lack of research, it is currently impossible to ascertain whether the wearing of uniforms is responsible for producing positive changes in student behavior. The ACLU has proposed that mandatory uniforms violate a student’s free expression rights (King, 1998.)

Critics of school uniforms and strict dress codes contend that children’s individuality will be lessened. Others state that uniforms are similar to prison uniforms and make students feel entrapped. A few educators believe that any form of a dress code or uniform will take away a student’s freedom to express themselves. (Behling, 1994.)

Critics of school uniforms also say that growing up through the adolescent years and experimenting with clothing is a normal, developmental stage to adulthood. Adolescence is a period when youths attempt to find their own uniqueness and individuality in various ways (King, 1998.)

The most important reason schools do not have a standardized dress code or school uniform policy is the resistance schools would receive from parents and students. This resistance could be devastating to the morale of a school. There will be many parents and students who will state that their freedom of expression rights are being jeopardized. Free expression results in more knowledgeable and competent decisions being made that will make everyone better off. Strike, Haller, & Soltis (1998) state through the principle of benefit maximation that the best decision is the one that benefits the maximum amount of persons. In their principle of equal respect they also contend that people cannot be treated at though they were nothing more than instruments. Therefore, it is important to include parents and students in the process. Usually a presentation to a parent organization is a viable place to begin. A committee of interested parents, students, and teachers should be established. It may be effective for representatives of parents, students, and teachers to visit other schools with established written dress code policies. Parents and students should review samples of dress uniforms. Consideration should be given to having students model uniforms in a "style show" format. The legal ramifications of establishing a school uniform policy should be examined as well. Parents should be the prime initiators behind suggesting a school uniform policy. But it is also paramount to involve the students in the selection process.

Beyond the resistance issue, a substantial amount of effort is needed to establish a school uniform dress code. After forming a committee comprised of parents, students, and teachers, school policies should be reviewed. Uniform suppliers should be researched. Comparison costs and style options need to be considered. The entire process should occur over a two-year period. Parents should be surveyed as well as students. Student government and the students should determine the colors and style of the uniforms. For uniforms to be a success, as with all other school initiatives, parents must be involved (Manual on School Uniforms, 2000.)

Is a school uniform policy worth the effort? Will violence and theft decrease? Will gangs in schools be prevented? Will students be more disciplined? Will uniforms assist students to resist peer pressure? Will uniforms help students concentrate more on their school work? The most concise response to these questions is ‘nobody knows.’ (Hemphill, 1998.) I believe the jury is still out on the benefits of mandating uniforms for public school students. We cannot treat children as robots. If we could, uniforms would not be necessary.

Children are living, free thinking individuals whose rights must be protected, with or without uniforms. There have not been enough studies done to totally indicate that the wearing of uniforms will consistently create positive behavioral changes in student behavior. School uniforms may not work in every community. What may work well in an inner city, may not be necessary in a suburb (McMillan, 2000.) I do not believe that uniforms should be considered as a way to fix every school problem. But if they help teachers to get on with the business of teaching and learning, it may be in a school’s best interest to keep an open mind about looking at them as a possible alternative.

At the very minimum, schools should address the issue of a dress code. It is not necessary for the code to be rigid. But it is necessary for the dress code to be reasonable and fair. The best interests of students and their welfare should be addressed. There is no magical solution to the stopping of school violence and the improvement of discipline. Much of this answer lies in the chemistry that exists in a school between students and staff. Uniforms might appear to the public as the cure-all for a schools’ ills, but the ultimate decision on behavioral change is made by the children themselves.


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