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Calif. District Points to Uniforms for Plunging Crime Rate

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Clad in similar red, white, and black outfits, hundreds of students mill around the concrete courtyard of Rogers Middle School here before heading to their first class of the day.

While not exactly orderly, the adolescents aren't involved in any ugly playground tangles either, observes Principal Linda C. Moore, who attributes the calm atmosphere this winter morning to the absence of gang clothing and coveted sports garb that have sparked clashes in the past.

"Before uniforms, you'd spend the majority of time dealing with fights, assaults, drug and alcohol abuse. Now, a fight is not an everyday occurrence," Ms. Moore said.

In 1994, the 83,000-student Long Beach district became the first in the country to require elementary and middle school students systemwide to don uniforms. ("Uniforms Get Credit for Decrease in Discipline Problems," Feb. 14, 1996.)

Since then, according to district officials, school crime here has plummeted by 76 percent. From 1993-94, the school year before uniforms were required, to 1996-97, incidents of assaults in grades K-8 plunged by 85 percent, weapons offenses dropped 83 percent, and vandalism was cut in half, district records show.

During the same three-year period, K-8 attendance in the school system reached an all-time high of 94 percent.

"The uniform policy in Long Beach has been a home run event," said Ronald D. Stephens, the executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif., and an expert on school crime. "The advantage of uniforms is that young people tend to behave the way they are dressed," he said.

Long Beach's experiment, which President Clinton and many education leaders have embraced as an effective remedy to the problem of school crime, has spurred several other districts across the country to follow suit. But some educators question whether a uniform requirement alone is an effective crime deterrent, as Long Beach's statistics imply.

Popularity Growing

Long Beach is starting to get plenty of company. Several big-city districts, such as Baltimore, Chicago, Miami-Dade County, and Phoenix, now allow individual schools to mandate student uniforms.

The smaller, 12,000-student Eagle Pass, Texas, district has gone even further by ordering students from kindergarten through 12th grade to wear uniforms. And last month, the San Antonio school board voted to require all 60,000 of its students to wear uniforms starting next fall.

San Antonio parents, who overwhelmingly supported the new rule, were swayed in part by the experience of a local middle school. The Mark Twain Middle School, which had recently mandated uniforms for its 885 students, had 20 times fewer referrals to the office for discipline problems in the first two weeks of school than in the previous year.

In addition, 10 states, including California, Florida, and New York, have enacted legislation in the past few years to assist districts in drafting uniform policies.

The 'Hawthorne Effect'

Some educators, however, are warning against the wholesale adoption of what they view as a superficial solution to the complex problem of school crime.

"From our experience, I think that uniforms tend to be a positive influence, but whether they are a quick and easy cure for every problem that faces a school district, I think not," said Henry Duval, a spokesman for the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington group that represents 50 big-city districts. He noted that many districts have successfully reduced violence over time without adopting strict uniform requirements. Violence-prevention courses, security measures, police coordination with schools, and student-initiated crime reporting have all been linked to reductions in school crime, experts say.

In addition, some researchers argue that before more districts mandate standard attire for students, rigorous study should be undertaken to see if lower crime rates are a direct result of such requirements.

Ray C. Rist, a professor of education and sociology at George Washington University in Washington, said that a well-researched phenomenon called the "Hawthorne effect"--which means that a group of people who are treated in a special way tend to behave differently--may explain why uniforms might foster better student behavior.

"But no one has ever been able to establish that uniforms, in and of themselves, can have such a dramatic reduction in crime," Mr. Rist said.

The national juvenile-arrest rate has dropped in the past several years, which may explain some of the decreases in Long Beach's school crime figures. Between 1994 and 1996, the juvenile-arrest rate for violent crimes tumbled by about 12 percent, according to U.S. Department of Justice figures.

But Long Beach administrators stand by their statistics, which they say represent the largest and most sustained drop in student crime in the district's history.

Dick Van Der Laan, a spokesman for the urban district outside Los Angeles, said no other major security measures were adopted during the time that uniforms were put in place--measures that might have provided alternative explanations for the steep decline in fights, robberies, vandalism, and other criminal activity.

"People thought this would be flash in the pan," Mr. Van Der Laan said. "But this reduction is more than just a coincidence."

Comparisons with other districts are difficult to come by because administrators elsewhere do not necessarily gather similar data.

High School Couture

Buoyed by its success, the Southern California district has expanded its uniform rule to the high school level by requiring 9th graders at Wilson High School to wear matching apparel as part of a pilot program this school year. The district plans to phase in the requirement one grade each year at Wilson and is considering extending the mandate to all six high schools in the future.

Parents here are not only pleased with the prospect of a safer, more orderly campus; they like the convenience and affordability of uniforms as well.

"It makes it easier on me. I buy 10 shirts in the summer and five pair of pants in the winter, and that's it until Christmas," said Curtis Mosley, whose 12-year-old son attends Rogers Middle School.

Some of Rogers' students also see the benefit of a limited wardrobe. "I don't care about wearing the same colors every day because it makes it easier to shop for new clothes," said Tracy Moss, an 8th grader.

But, not surprisingly, many students are irked about the requirement, which, they complain, strips them of their sartorial distinctiveness.

"I think it's stupid. What does school have to do with uniforms?" said Jamie Palazzolo, a 9th grader at Wilson High.

Kimberly Rojo, a freshman wearing the required white shirt and khaki slacks during a break from class at Wilson, said she dreaded the prospect of wearing the same outfit throughout this and the next three years. "Seniors shouldn't have to wear uniforms," the 14-year-old argued. "If they are old enough to vote, they shouldn't be told what to wear."

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