Dressed For Success

April 01, 1996 6 min read

Linda Moore has been feeling especially proud lately. And she has President Clinton to thank. In his State of the Union Address, Clinton praised student uniforms as a way to promote safety and discipline in public schools. Moore, principal of Will Rogers Middle School in Long Beach, Calif., 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 says.

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

Since the mandatory-uniform policy was launched in 56 elementary and 14 middle schools in the fall of 1994, violence and discipline problems have decreased dramatically. From the school year before uniforms were required, 1993-94, to last year, assault and battery cases in grades K-8 dropped by 34 percent. Physical fights between students dropped by 51 percent. And there were 32 percent fewer suspensions.

Though each school in the district can choose its own uniform, most of the district’s nearly 60,000 K-8 students are required to wear black or blue pants, skirts, or shorts with white shirts. Parents have the option of excusing their children from the requirement, but, so far, only 500 parents have done so, according to district spokesman Dick Van DerLaan.

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, for example, initiated a uniform policy in September. And a small number of other districts--including Dade County, Fla.; Seattle; and Charleston, S.C.--now allow schools to decide for themselves whether to require uniforms.

But Long Beach appears to be the first school system to have documented measurable success in improving student behavior. Since students at Will 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. Uniforms are an effective method of reducing unwanted behavior, Moore says, because the more formal clothing puts students in the right mind-set to learn. “It’s about dressing for success,’' explains the principal, who wears the school uniform herself as a gesture of solidarity.

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. Darting down the hall between classes, Moore, a former basketball coach, scans the crowds of students. “Tuck in that shirt,’' she calls out to one disheveled teenager slouching against a locker. She looks disparagingly at another whose sweatshirt is clearly purple, not red.

Each of the district’s schools is allowed to choose, in addition to colors, 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,’' Van DerLaan says. “It’s a little more California casual.’'

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, including caps, bandanas, baggy pants, and electronic pagers. But many felt the district had to take a more drastic approach.

“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,’' says Judy Jacobs, a parent and an early advocate of the uniform policy.

One added benefit of uniforms is that it brings uniformity, making it easier to spot people who don’t belong on campus. Many who teach in areas where gangs are prevalent also say that students in uniforms are safer walking to and from school. “If gang members see one of our students in uniform, they’ll leave them alone,’' says Wilma Ferguson, who has been a gym teacher at Franklin Middle School for 14 years. The uniform, she explains, shows that they’re not into gangs; they belong to a different sort of clique.

Still, many of the district’s students aren’t nearly as upbeat about the policy as parents and teachers seem to be. And the older they are, the less they seem to like it--which may not bode well for efforts to expand the requirement to high schools. “It’s like we’re all in jail,’' says Hector Gonzalez, a 7th grader at Rogers. “It’s totally bogus,’' gripes Franklin 8th grader Gan Luong. “If you wear decent clothes, you shouldn’t have to wear uniforms.’' Alicia Nunez, also an 8th grader at Franklin, complains that the regimented attire stifles her creativity. “You come to school to get your education,’' she says, “not for them to tell you how to dress.’'

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, for example, in one of the first legal tests of a 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.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, acting on behalf of a group of low-income families, filed suit last October against the Long Beach district, arguing that it had violated state law by neglecting to adequately inform parents about their right to exempt their children from the program. The suit also claimed that many parents couldn’t afford the uniform. The lawsuit was dropped, however, after the district pledged to mail additional materials about the policy to parents and to provide information about local charities that donate uniforms to students. (District officials say charities have distributed more than $180,000 worth of uniforms since the program began.)

Despite their commitment to the school-uniform policy, Long Beach officials don’t view it as a panacea for discipline problems. The district is continuing to evaluate the benefits 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, there are those who see a positive side. Nick Duran, an 8th grader and the student-body president at Rogers Middle School, points out that the policy makes getting dressed in the morning a snap since the choices are somewhat limited.

Another “good thing,’' he says, “is that people judge you on your inner characteristics rather than what you wear.’'

--Jessica Portner

A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 1996 edition of Teacher as Dressed For Success