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The Big Cover-up: Schools Reinstate Dress Codes

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The secondary-school dress code--a major issue in thousands of student-government campaigns in the late 60's and early 70's--is being reshaped by the "new federalism."

Earlier this year, Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell proposed to abolish the federal regulation that prohibits local schools, under possible penalty of losing federal aid, from discriminating "against any person in the application of any rules of appearance." In effect, he intends to hand the issue of dress codes back to the local districts.

Recent developments in California indicate that school districts are responding. There, a researcher who has written a book on the subject says many school districts are returning to strict codes.

K. Marshall Clayton, author of Discipline: Where Has It Gone? Does Dress Codes=Discipline? [sic], a study begun in 1976, found overwhelming support for the return of dress codes among teachers.

Students, Mr. Clayton found, were opposed by only a slim margin to the idea of a mandatory dress code. And the majority of students surveyed said that if such a code were established, "they would not transfer to another school because of it."

During the course of his research, Mr. Clayton discovered several districts that had already reinstated mandatory codes. The most recent conversion appears to have occurred in the Burbank school district.

There, administrators mailed a copy of the new code to students' homes before the beginning of the current school year. According to the code, the "braless look" is unacceptable; underwear must be covered by clothing; and "swimsuit-type tops, short shorts, and bare midriffs" are out, as are messages on clothing and jewelry relating to sex, drugs, alcohol, and tobacco.

Strapless "tube tops" also were outlawed because "they're just terribly exciting to grab hold of and pull down," said Delores Palmer, assistant superintendent of the Burbank system. According to school officials, there have been only isolated problems with the new code, and few complaints from parents or students.

Mr. Clayton believes teachers should be next in line. He recommends that teachers, especially young ones who wear clothes like the students', "clean up their acts" and "dress the part."

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