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Can Uniforms Save Our Schools?

The New York City School Board recently voted to require students in all city elementary schools to wear school uniforms beginning in September 1999. The unanimous ruling, which is expected to affect more than a half-million students in the nation's largest school system, is the most recent development in a trend that is rapidly spreading across the country.

Eleven percent of 958 elementary and middle schools who responded to a recent survey conducted by the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) have a school uniform requirement and another 15 percent are considering such a requirement. Based on the results of that survey, NAESP estimates that more than one fourth of elementary and middle school students in at least ten states attend a public school where uniforms are either already worn or are under serious consideration. The survey further revealed that most of those schools adopted their uniform policies within the past two years.


"School uniforms are one step that may be able to break this cycle of violence, truancy, and disorder..."

-- President Bill Clinton

Much of the recent increase in school uniform requirements can be attributed to the efforts of President Bill Clinton. In his 1996 State of the Union Address, Clinton called upon school leaders to make uniforms an important part of their efforts to improve school safety and discipline. In late February of the same year, he issued a memorandum to the U.S. Secretary of Education, directing that the government's Manual on School Uniforms be distributed to each of the country's 16,000 school districts. And in his 1997 State of the Union Address, Clinton announced his 10-point plan for education, which included a directive encouraging the adoption of school uniforms.

Clinton -- along with many other legislators, educators, and parents -- believes that uniforms can increase student safety and enhance the learning environment in our nation's schools. Those in favor of school uniform policies say that uniforms decrease violent behavior caused by disputes over expensive clothing, minimize overt symbols of gang activity, reduce classroom distractions, improve student behavior and attitudes toward learning, and help school officials identify those who don't belong on school property. In addition, they say, uniforms improve school spirit and enhance the school's image within the community.


Many of those assumptions have been strengthened by reports from Long Beach, California, the first school district in the nation to institute a mandatory uniform policy. School officials there say that, since 1994, when uniforms were first required, school crime has decreased by 76 percent, assaults committed on school property have dropped by 85 percent, incidents of school vandalism have decreased from more than 1,400 to less than 100 a year, and average attendance has reached an all-time high at nearly 95 percent.

Based largely on those reports, other school districts have begun to follow Long Beach's lead. In Dade County Florida, 90 of the county's 300 schools have mandatory school uniform policies and another 90 recently voted to adopt them. In San Antonio, Texas, all of the city's 60,000 students will be required to wear school uniforms beginning next fall. In Houston, Texas, nearly 70 percent of schools have adopted a mandatory uniform or dress code policy. In addition, individual schools with mandatory uniform policies can be found in Seattle, Baltimore, Kansas City, Memphis, and many other U.S. cities and towns. At least 10 states have enacted legislation enabling individual schools or school districts to draft school uniform policies and even more are considering such legislation.


Not everyone is convinced, however. Some educators suggest that the results of the Long Beach experiment may be affected by other changes instituted at the same time as the school uniform policy. Experts such as Ray C. Rist, a professor of education and sociology at George Washington University, also warn about other factors that may have influenced the Long Beach experience. In a January 1998 Education Week article, Rist discusses the implications of the "Hawthorne effect," which states that a group of people who are treated in a special way may behave differently because of that treatment. In other words, Long Beach students may behave better simply because they are the focus of so much attention. "No one," says Rist, "has ever been able to establish that uniforms, in and of themselves, can result in a dramatic reduction in crime."

Loren Siegel, director of public education for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) agrees, saying "No empirical studies show that uniforms consistently produce positive changes in student behavior over the long run."

Those experts and others suggest that measures such as violence prevention courses, closer links between schools and local law enforcement agencies, smaller classes, better facilities, and tighter school security are much more effective than school uniforms in preventing school violence. And they warn that many school districts may see uniforms as an easy solution to a much more complicated problem.

Some students seem to agree. In focus groups conducted by the ACLU, high school students were asked for suggestions for improving their schools. The students cited a need for more extra curricular activities, improved security at school entrances and in school corridors, increased discussion of issues such as racism and cultural differences, establishment of successful jobs programs, and instruction in conflict resolution techniques. School uniforms were not included on the students' list.


Despite those concerns, protests, and unanswered questions, the trend of requiring school uniforms appears to be growing. Many educators seem to agree with New York school board president William Thompson Jr. who, while admitting "It isn't going to replace good teaching, good principals, small classrooms, or any one of dozens of things," says "The policy creates a better educational climate." Simply put, with or without more significant changes, many believe that student attire affects students' attitudes and that school uniforms are the best way to encourage students to do their best work.

And, it may not end there. If a recent New York Post article has anything to say about it, uniforms won't be an issue that's just for students anymore. The article suggests that it may be time to consider school uniforms for teachers as well!

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Article by Linda Starr
Education World®
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