Published Online: February 14, 1996

Uniforms Get Credit for Decrease in Discipline Problems


Long Beach, Calif.

Linda Moore has been feeling especially proud lately.

And she has President Clinton to thank.

In his State of the Union Address last month, Mr. Clinton praised student uniforms as a way to promote safety and discipline in public schools. Ms. Moore, the principal of Will Rogers Middle School here, felt a particular satisfaction in the endorsement.

"Everybody is looking for answers, and here is a district that is doing something that is working," she said. For more than a year, the 83,000-student Long Beach system has required its elementary and middle school students to dress in uniform fashion. It was the first public school district in the nation to do so.

Mr. Clinton may have had this Southern California school system in mind when, in his speech, he challenged public schools to mandate uniforms "if it meant that teenagers [would] stop killing each other over designer jackets."

Dramatic Results

Since the mandatory-uniform policy was launched in 56 elementary and 14 middle schools here in fall 1994, violence and discipline problems have decreased dramatically, a recent survey by the district shows.

From the year before uniforms were required, 1993-94, to last year, assault and battery cases in grades K-8 have dropped 34 percent. Physical fights between students have dropped by 51 percent, and there were 32 percent fewer suspensions.

Though each school in the district can choose its own uniform, most Long Beach students are required to wear black or blue pants, skirts, or shorts with white shirts. Nearly 60,000 K-8 students are affected by the policy.

Parents have the option of excusing their children from the requirement. But, so far, only 500 parents have filled out petitions to exempt their children, according to Dick Van DerLaan, a spokesman for the district.

In addition to Long Beach, a few other districts in California and across the country are testing the benefits of requiring students to come to school in color-specific, and sometimes style-specific, clothing.

The Oakland, Calif., schools began a similar uniform policy last September. And a small number of other districts--including Dade County, Fla.; Seattle; and Charleston, S.C.--allow schools to decide for themselves whether to require uniforms. (See Education Week, March 15, 1995.)

But Long Beach appears to be the first school system to have documented measurable success in improving student behavior.

Since students at Rogers Middle School started wearing black bottoms, white tops, and red jackets or sweaters, fights have declined by 40 percent, and academic performance has improved, school official said.

Uniforms are an effective method of reducing unwanted behavior, she said, because the more formal clothing puts students in the right mind-set to learn.

"It's about dressing for success," said Ms. Moore, who said she wears the school uniform as a gesture of solidarity with her students. She has a selection of bright red blazers in her home closet.

Not one parent at Rogers Middle School has opted out of the plan this year, and a quick look around campus at the unbroken stream of red, white, and black shows that students are largely compliant. But there are some exceptions.

Last week, as Ms. Moore darted down the hall between classes, the former basketball coach was scanning the crowds.

"Tuck in that shirt," she called out to one disheveled teenager who was slouching against a locker. She looked disparagingly at another whose sweatshirt was clearly purple, not red.

In addition to choosing uniform colors, each of the district's schools is allowed to chose the fabric and style of dress. One elementary school requires its pupils to wear ties, and a few others prefer plaid, but most stick with blue or black and white.

"This isn't a private, prep school, with a coat-of-arms and saddle shoes look," Mr. Van DerLaan said. "It's a little more California casual."

Generation Gap

A catalyst for adopting uniforms in Long Beach was parents' fears over students being attacked for inadvertently wearing a wrong color scarf or hat that might provoke rivalry among local gangs.

The district adopted a dress code more than a decade ago that prohibits gang-related attire, as well as caps, bandanas, baggy pants, and electronic pagers. But many felt the district had to take a more drastic approach.

When Judy Jacobs had two children attending Rogers Middle School, she was among the organizers of the effort to bring uniforms to that school. She now has a child in a district elementary school and has remained enthusiastic about uniforms. "There are so few boundaries for kids these days, with the drug use and violence, so if we can give them some limits, that's good," she said.

The uniformity tends to bolster safety because it makes it easier to spot people who may not belong on campus, school leaders say.

Many who teach in areas where gangs are prevalent argue that students are safer walking to school when dressed in uniform.

"If gang members see one of our students in uniform, they'll leave them alone," as if they belong to a different clique, said Wilma Ferguson, who has been a gym teacher at Franklin Middle School here for 14 years.

But a large portion of the district's students aren't as upbeat as parents and teachers appear to be. And the older they get, the less they seem to like it--which may not bode well for talk in the district of expanding the uniform requirement to high schools.

"It's like we're all in jail," said Hector Gonzalez, a 7th grader at Rogers.

"It's totally bogus," said Gan Luong, an 8th grader at Franklin. "If you wear decent clothes, you shouldn't have to wear uniforms."

Alicia Nunez, also an 8th grader at Franklin, complained that the regimented attire stifles her creativity. "You come to school to get your education, not for them to tell you how to dress," the 14-year-old said as she strode across campus wearing a chocolate-brown T-shirt and jeans.

Legal Challenge

The U.S. Supreme Court hasn't directly addressed the question of whether public schools can impose dress requirements on their students. Lower courts, however, have generally upheld school dress codes.

Last fall, in one of the first legal tests of a mandatory-uniform policy, an Arizona state judge upheld a Phoenix middle school's policy, even though it does not give students the right to opt out of the requirement. (See Education Week, Nov. 15, 1995.)

Most public schools and districts offer a parent or guardian the opportunity to excuse a child from wearing a uniform. And most do not impose harsh penalties on students who are supposed to wear uniforms but don't.

"Schools generally feel they need to exercise latitude when they put their foot down," said Gary Marx, a spokesman for the American Association of School Administrators in Arlington, Va.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, on behalf of a group of low-income families, filed a lawsuit in state court last October against the Long Beach Unified School District, claiming that the district's uniform policy is a financial burden on poor families. The ACLU also claimed that the district has violated state law by neglecting to adequately inform parents about their right to exempt their children from the program.

The law signed in 1994 by California Gov. Pete Wilson to allow state public schools to require uniforms also says that parents must have a way to opt out of such requirements.

The ACLU lawyers say many parents can't afford the cost of school uniforms. About 66 percent of the district's elementary and middle school students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. The case is currently in mediation.

Hope Carradine, who dresses three of her five children in uniforms, said she had to ask other family members to help pay for them. "I shop thrift and buy in bulk, and you can't do that with uniforms," she said.

Other Strategies

But district officials say that parents can buy the essential items--a white shirt and a pair of pants--for $25 from several area stores. In addition, many schools sell sweatshirts or shorts for $6 each. Many local charities also provide free uniforms, backpacks, and shoes to needy students.

And if parents find the costs too burdensome, Mr. Van DerLaan, the district spokesman, said, they can always opt out. A flier explaining this right was sent to parents nine months before any uniform policies became effective, he said.

Despite their commitment to the school-uniform policy, Long Beach officials don't view it as a panacea for discipline problems.

Other efforts, such as stepped-up parent involvement and additional conflict-resolution classes also have contributed to the more peaceful climate on campuses, school leaders here say.

The district is continuing to evaluate the benefits of uniforms to determine whether last year's improved numbers for behavior were more than a blip on the screen.

And while some Long Beach students complain that the regulation dress is monotonous and dampens their personal style, many also see a positive side.

"The good thing is people judge you on your inner characteristics rather than what you wear," said Nick Duran, an 8th grader and the student-body president at Rogers Middle School. Plus, he said, it's easier to choose what to put on in the morning.

The Dressing Rules

The Long Beach, Calif., school district has had a dress code for more than a decade, but in 1994 it became the first in the nation to adopt a districtwide K-8 uniform policy. Though the uniforms can vary, most schools have adopted a version of the one pictured here on Franklin Middle School student Shawn Smith, 13, far right. His classmate, Donta Sandler, 13, is not in uniform but is following the district's K-12 dress code, detailed below:

  • Students must be clean.
  • No oversized or sagging clothing.
  • No open-toed shoes or sandals.
  • No jewelry that could cause injury.
  • No beepers or pagers.
  • No gang-related clothing.
  • No hats, unless part of a schooluniform or medically required.
  • No sunglasses in class unless medically required.
  • No bandanas, rags, gloves, or gang-related decorative articles.
  • No visible gang-related tattoos.

SOURCE: Long Beach, Calif., School District.

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