School Uniform Policies in U.S. Public Schools

Introduction

Public schools in the U.S. have been assigned the authority and accountability of educating students properly while continuing to keep in existence a well-behaved and result-oriented environment in which learning can thrive. In recent years, many schools and district officials have claimed that there is an increase in improper activities within the school environment, such as violence, gang activity, theft of clothing, and conflicts against discipline. This led to the introduction of school uniforms by officials in school districts across the country. This move was faced with a lot of opposition. Today, the debate over school uniform policies continues to rage. Even though some people argue that the introduction has inhibited their individuality and self-expression, students should wear uniforms as a means to reduce violence, promote academic development and encourage self-expression.

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Background

Private schools {especially Catholic schools} in the country were the first to adopt school uniform policies that dictate what sort of clothing should be worn to school (Pytel). Public schools soon started emulating their example. Long Beach California Unified School District {LBUSD} became the first school district to adopt a public school uniform policy in 1994 (Lumsden). A big boost was received when President Bill Clinton catapulted the issue of school uniform policies to national prominence in January 1996 by officially permitted it during his State of the Union Address. Clinton emphasized his support for school uniforms by ordering the U.S. Department of Education to deliver a brochure called “A Manual of School Uniforms” to all the country’s school districts (Pedzich). Swift developments followed the President’s official sanction. In May 2000, The Philadelphia Board of Education became the first big city board to adopt a school uniforms policy for 200,000 students in the city’s 259 public schools. In addition to several large public school systems in the country that have adopted a mandatory school uniforms policy, several others {such as Memphis, Nashville, St. Louis, Detroit, Los Angeles, and Cincinnati} have adopted either mandatory or voluntary uniform policies (Education Commission of the States).

Arguments in Favor of Making School Uniform Policies Compulsory in U.S. Public Schools

U.S. education officials protested that a state of continuous confrontation had been created between school authorities trying to do their duty by producing an environment conducive to learning, and students rebelling against the restraints of acceptable, protected behavior (Pedzich). School teachers are hard-pressed to keep their students motivated on academics without having the pupils distracted instead about who is wearing what (Pytel). They propagated dress codes and uniforms as the way to achieve a safe, secure and orderly school environment. In this context, the school uniform policy is meant to be a deterrent to the violence of all kinds, while promoting academic development and helping students exercise self-expression.

School Violence

Public schools are increasingly looking to school uniform policies, to enhance the reputation of the school as a safe center of learning and development in the life of students. Proponents state that schools are safer and more secure environments as a result of implementing school uniform policies, claiming it has reduced acts of violence and theft over designer wear and costly shoes. School authorities can identify non-uniform wearing persons as illegal persons entering into the school campus to instigate violence and can take quick action {by using its security guards, and/or enlisting the help of the police} to apprehend these miscreants. Also, adherence to school uniform policies does not allow students belonging to various gangs to wear their gang colors and other memorabilia (The Public School’s Parent Network) such as jewelry, bandannas, religious insignia, and headgear to school, thereby forestalling any form of gang warfare (Pedzich). School uniforms also forestall a dangerous new trend that has recently cropped up involving students’ usage of T-shirts bearing the words “Don’t Snitch.” Its general meaning is widely understood, namely, students should not cooperate with the school administration, teaching staff, and police. Very much implied is the threat of violent consequences to those that dare to ‘snitch.’ In the absence of school uniform policies, such blatantly threatening messages that aid and abet violence have to be contended with (Pytel).

Secondly, the prohibition of cargo pants and extra baggy pants {easily the most versatile aids to dangerous students} acts as a huge deterrent to crime. Its big and deep pockets can comfortably be used to conceal a gun or knife or drugs (Pytel).

Academic Development

Proponents argue that school uniforms help students concentrate on academics, claiming that they otherwise concentrate so much on their wardrobe selection, that it draws their attention away from learning. Not only are the number of discipline referrals reduced, but the school uniforms policy has positive effects on students’ school attendance and overall academic output (Lumsden). They do not have to miss classes if they do not have the correct brand of ‘cool’ apparel as their more sophisticated peers (Pytel). Students are at the crossroads of their lives where they realize that a good academic achievement is beckoning them towards a better future. They need all the assistance they can to concentrate on their studies and will surely be only distracted by having to think about changing wardrobes each day or competing with what others are wearing.

Another important point is that there are many students in the poor bracket as well as an increasing number of students learning on a part-time basis while spending the other part earning a reasonable livelihood. Such students are more concerned about making financial ends meet and will surely breathe a huge sigh of relief that they do not have to purchase expensive outfits or try to live up to the standards of their richer peers, but instead be happily content with having to make do with just two pairs {the minimum} of clothing to suffice for a school term. The school uniform policies, in their relieved opinion, act as a welcome leveler of the socio-economic playing field (Pedzich).

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The third aid to academic development takes place as, in the absence of school uniform policies, seductive dressing such as girls wearing spaghetti-strap tank tops or miniskirts or outfits that reveal underwear can disrupt the scholastic atmosphere and distract students of the opposite sex (Foxnews.com). Sexuality in thoughts, association, and feelings is at its highest peak in young men and women studying in middle and high school. These highly sensitive and perceptive young people do not require any visual aids; they have just to observe seductively dressed colleagues and their overactive imaginations will run riot (Pytel).

Exercise of Self-Expression

Proponents praise the dress code or uniform policy as contributing significantly to the promotion of students’ self-expression. Ridiculing the arguments of education and sociology specialists that such policies stifle self-expression, not only is self-expression encouraged {by staunchly choosing to align with righteousness}, but it serves as a stepping stone to other, more significant forms of self-expression that are crying out to be used, and used properly in this modern world. Take for example the freedom of speech and expression that is granted to every U.S citizen – including students – by the country’s Constitution. As a result of it, every student who acquires the moral justification {by emerging as a competition winner, or being appointed class president, or by being adjudged best student in graduating class} can give full vent to self-expression in the form of formal speeches provided they do not flaunt the obscenity/defamatory/slander rules of the First Amendment (First Amendment Schools). In what is seen as an excellent example of the limitations involved, in Bethel School District vs. Fraser {1986}, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Matthew Fraser’s nomination speech did not qualify for self-expression as it was liberally spiked with hardly concealed lewd sexual metaphors (Pedzich).

In a second example, a much wider group of students who do not need to prove their ‘excellence’ credentials can indulge in self-expression on any controversial subject of their choice in the form of debates, as long as prior approval of the teacher is obtained. School administrators and teachers are only too delighted to assist and motivate the self-expression in students (First Amendment Schools). Given the undeniable fact that these students are among the cream of the next generation who will be entrusted with the running of the U.S, such self-expression is much more important than talking about two sets of clothing to be worn to school every week.

Conclusion

While records indicate that as many as 70% of 5,500 school principals in the U.S who were questioned by the National Association of Secondary School Principals {NASSP} confirmed they were in favor of adopting school uniforms, it is significant to note that it took place more than a decade ago in 2006. Today, the issue of school uniforms has suddenly gained much more urgency in the wake of the increasing school shootings that have plagued U.S schools lately, prime examples being the Columbine High School massacre in 1999 where 15 persons were killed, the Red Lake High School massacre in 2005 where 10 people lost their lives and the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007 involving the death of a 33 unfortunate persons. Ronald D. Stephens, Executive Director of the National School Safety Center went on record to state: “In the wake of school shootings, communities and schools are much more willing to embrace uniforms as well as several other strategies to enhance student safety” (Lumsden).

The school uniforms policy is gaining so much support in the U.S. that many states are currently studying recommendations that would need school teachers to don uniforms, or at least make them follow a stringent dress code. The logic behind this is that as teachers occupy hallowed positions as role models for pupils, they must live up to their idealism through their clothing. The respect for the teaching profession will get a shot in the arm, and its wide-reaching effects are bound to be manifested in the form of higher academia output levels of students, increased reputation of public schools, and the formation of an ideal learning environment as a whole (Pedzach).

As with nearly everything else in life, there are sections of society that go a little too far in exhibiting their support of a good thing. Starting from August 25 this year, administration officials of Gonzales High School in Texas set rules in place whereby students who turn up without wearing the prescribed school uniform will have to either undergo in-school suspension or wear a navy blue coverall provided by the school. The coveralls are unique in that they are not only made on the lines of prison jumpsuits but they are made by inmates of Texas penitentiaries. While the school administration is optimistic about the success of its unique project that it calls an ‘additional choice to permit retaining students in classrooms,’ the fertile imaginations of some rebellious students are already devising ways to use the option to their advantage, such as purchasing jumpsuits of their own to wear for the complete scholastic year.

References

Dress Codes: The Pros & Cons of Mandatory School Uniforms in Public Schools.” The Public School’s Parent Network. 2004. Web.

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“Guideline # 25: Student Expression.” First Amendment Schools. 2008. Web.

Lumsden, Linda. “Uniforms & Dress Code Policies.” ERIC Digest. 2004. Web.

Pedzich, Joan. “Student Dress Codes in Public Schools.” Aallnet.org. 2002. Web.

Pytel, Barbara. “Dress Codes & School.” Suite101.com. 2006. Web.

“Texas High School Orders Prison Jumpsuits for Offenders of Dress Codes.” Foxnews.com. 2008. Web.

“Uniforms/Dress Codes.” Education Commission of the States. 2008. Web.

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