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Dade To Vote on Proposal To Require Uniforms

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The Dade County, Fla., school board is scheduled to vote next week on a proposal that would allow schools in the nation's fourth-largest district to require students to wear uniforms.

If passed by the school board, the proposal would allow any school to adopt the policy if 75 percent of parents approve of it. The uniform policy would begin as early as this fall.

Dade County is the largest of several districts around the country that are considering or have adopted mandatory policies on uniforms, generally in efforts to reduce gang-related activity, eliminate intruders, reduce distractions, and cut down on families' clothing costs.

Though many districts and schools within districts have encouraged students to wear uniforms voluntarily, mandatory policies have run into obstacles.

Organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union have opposed them on grounds they violate students' rights of freedom of expression, and in some places parents have raised concerns about the cost of the uniforms.

Support From Parents

Advocates of the idea, however, say uniforms reduce distractions among students.

"They aren't comparing what each other has on. Everyone is wearing the same thing," said Yvonne Jones, the assistant principal at Baltimore's Cherry Hill Elementary School, which has had a voluntary uniform policy since 1987."The parents are supportive for the same reasons," she said, "and financially, it's easier on the budget."

School board members in the 320,000-student Dade County district, which includes Miami, have already approved the plan once, and are scheduled to put it to a final vote on March 22, said Marilyn Neff, a deputy superintendent. Some schools in the district already encourage uniforms on a voluntary basis.

Among its provisions, Ms. Neff said, are that:

  • Principals would be allowed to punish violators of the dress code by barring them from field trips or making them go to school on Saturday.
  • Parents could opt out of the policy by presenting administrators a written request and then meeting with school officials.
  • Arm bands, such as those worn in political protests, and other forms of expression--except gang-related attire--would be allowed.
  • Students whose religious beliefs conflicted with the policy would be exempted.
  • Students who could not afford the uniforms would receive free ones.

Nationwide Trend

If approved, Dade would be the largest school district in the nation to have a mandatory uniform policy, said Henry Duvall, the director of communications for the Council of the Great City Schools. The trend toward requiring students to wear uniforms is growing, he added.

The Long Beach, Calif., district has had a policy mandating uniforms since last school year.

"We believe there's a way kids should dress at their workplace," said Jan Leight, a co-principal at the Newcomb Academy for Academic Excellence, a 1,500-student K-8 school in Long Beach. "They're here about the business of getting smart."

In Oakland, Calif., the school board last month unanimously approved a proposal that will require students in grades K-8 to wear uniforms. The policy is scheduled to begin in the fall.

In Baltimore, 83 percent of parents at Cherry Hill Elementary voted to adopt uniforms, making it one of the first public schools in the country to do so. Most of the district's K-8 schools have since followed suit.

"The uniform concept helps those students that may tend to be less focused," said Ms. Jones.

In Baltimore and other districts that have adopted them, uniform policies have won strong support from parents, administrators, and students.

In schools infested with gangs, uniforms can help identify intruders and eliminate gang-affiliated colors, which may help reduce violence.

Uniforms also help hide income disparities among students, advocates say. Teachers cite improved school spirit and fewer classroom distractions.

But there has been little research examining whether uniform policies improve student achievement.

Free-Speech Concerns

And such policies, especially mandatory ones, have their detractors.

"We believe it's a violation of free-speech rights," said Robyn Blumner, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union office in Miami. "Young people and their parents should make the choice of what to wear and not the school."

The A.C.L.U., however, does not plan to oppose the proposed Dade County policy, Ms. Blumner said.

In Long Beach, the mandatory uniform policy ran into opposition from the A.C.L.U., until passage of a state law that gave districts the go-ahead to require, not just request, uniforms.

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