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Department To Issue Guidelines on School Uniforms

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Proponents of school-uniform policies got another boost as President Clinton ordered the Department of Education to distribute manuals on the subject to the nation's 15,000 school districts.

The six-page document, intended as a road map for districts interested in adopting uniform dress codes for students, provides details of model programs and spells out ways for district leaders to usher in legal and workable programs.

"If student uniforms can help deter school violence, promote discipline, and foster a better learning environment, then we should offer our strong support to the schools and parents that try them," Mr. Clinton wrote last month in a memorandum to Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley.

Mr. Clinton announced the publication during his weekly radio address on Feb. 24 and then again later that day during a speech at a middle school in Long Beach, Calif., the first district in the nation to require elementary and middle schools students to dress in uniform fashion.

In his speech, President Clinton praised school officials and students in the 83,000-student district for creating a safer, more disciplined environment that focuses on learning.

The Southern California district registered a dramatic improvement in discipline problems after it adopted the policy last year. Physical fights between students dropped by 51 percent from the previous year, and the district reported 32 fewer suspensions. (See Education Week, Feb. 14, 1996.)

On the Campaign Trail

The publication of the federal guide and Mr. Clinton's Long Beach trip came just weeks after the president hailed student uniforms as a way to promote order in schools in his State of the Union Address. (See Education Week, Jan. 31, 1996.)

According to a White House adviser, public response to Mr. Clinton's endorsement of uniforms in his speech to Congress was so positive that the administration decided to push the idea during the president's visit to California last month.

"We were surprised about the amount of attention that the proposal generated," said Jeremy Ben-Ami, a domestic-policy adviser to the president. "Everything that we've heard on this issue has been positive."

Mr. Ben-Ami was quick to add, however, that Mr. Clinton's focus on safety and discipline in schools is not new. The president has supported the federal safe- and drug-free-schools program, the gun-free-schools initiative, and other school-safety programs, he said.

But some political observers suggest that Mr. Clinton has chosen to highlight the school-uniform issue in this election year because it strikes a politically moderate chord. By discussing the need to return to traditional values of dress and demeanor, they say, President Clinton is moving into an arena that has long been the domain of Republican politicians.

Campaign observers also suggest that the president finds the issue appealing because it allows him to advance a popular idea that doesn't involve an expensive, intrusive federal program.

"It must look very nice to people at the White House in that it's popular and won't cost anything," said Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a centrist Washington-based think tank. "It strikes me that if this wasn't a re-election year, we might have heard less about this."

Still, many educators seem to share Mr. Clinton's support for school uniforms.

Some 70 percent of middle and secondary school principals believe that requiring students to wear uniforms to school would reduce violent incidents and discipline problems, according to a survey of 5,500 principals who attended the National Association of Secondary School Principals' annual conference last week.

Nearly 60 percent of the principals surveyed also thought mandatory dress codes would lead to greater academic achievement.

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