Making a Splash

March 01, 1998 4 min read

Wearing similar red, white, and black outfits, hundreds of students mill about the courtyard of Rogers Middle School before heading to their first class of the day. Although not exactly orderly, the adolescents at this Long Beach, California, school aren’t involved in any ugly playground tangles either.

Principal Linda Moore attributes the calm atmosphere on this winter morning to the absence of gang clothing and coveted sports garb that sparked clashes in past years. “Before uniforms, you’d spend the majority of time dealing with fights, assaults, drug and alcohol abuse,” Moore says. “Now, a fight is not an everyday occurrence.”

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. Since then, district statisticians say, school crime in the urban system has plummeted by 76 percent. Between 1993-94, the school year before uniforms were required, and 1996-97, incidents of assault in grades K-8 plunged by 85 percent, weapons offenses dropped 83 percent, and vandalism was cut in half.

What’s more, K-8 attendance in the school system during the same three-year period reached 94 percent, an all-time high. “The uniform policy in Long Beach has been a home run event,” says Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center and an expert on school crime. “The advantage of uniforms is that young people tend to behave the way they are dressed.”

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 other systems across the country to follow suit. Big-city districts such as Baltimore, Chicago, Miami-Dade County, and Phoenix now allow individual schools to mandate student uniforms.

The 12,000-student Eagle Pass, Texas, district recently went one up on Long Beach, ordering not just elementary and middle school students to wear uniforms but also high schoolers. And in December, the San Antonio school board voted to require all its 60,000 students to wear uniforms starting next fall.

San Antonio parents overwhelmingly supported the new rule. They were swayed in part by the experience of a local middle school that had already made the switch to uniforms and was reporting fewer discipline problems.

Some educators, however, warn 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,” says Henry Duval, a spokesman for the Council of the Great City Schools, a group in Washington, D.C., that represents 50 big-city districts.

Duval notes 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 effective tools in battling school crime.

In addition, some researchers argue that before more districts standardize attire for students, rigorous study should be done to see if lower crime rates are a direct result of uniform mandates. Ray Rist, a professor of education and sociology at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., believes that a well-researched psychological phenomenon may be responsible for improved student behavior in districts that have adopted uniforms. It has been shown, he says, that when a particular group of people is treated in a special way they tend to behave differently. “No one has ever been able to establish that uniforms, in and of themselves, can have such a dramatic reduction in crime,” Rist says.

Others point out that Long Beach’s improved crime figures may stem in part from what’s widely seen as a decrease in juvenile crime nationally. Federal figures show that juvenile arrests for violent crimes tumbled roughly 12 percent between 1994 and 1996.

Still, Long Beach officials stand by their statistics, which they say represent the largest and most sustained drop in student crime in the district’s history. The school system, they point out, has adopted no other major security measures that might explain the steep decline in fights, robberies, vandalism, and other criminal activity. “People thought this would be a flash in the pan,” says district spokesman Dick Van Der Laan. “But this reduction is more than just a coincidence.”

Buoyed by its success, the Southern California district has expanded its uniform rule. Beginning this year, 9th graders at Wilson High School must wear clothing that fits an officially sanctioned color scheme. 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.

Parents are pleased not just by the safety aspects of the uniforms but also by their convenience and affordability. “It makes it easier on me,” says Curtis Mosley, whose 12-year-old son attends Rogers Middle School. “I buy 10 shirts in the summer and five pairs of pants in the winter.”

As for student opinion on uniform policies, the jury is still out. Some 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,” admits Rogers 8th grader Tracy Moss.

But others make no attempt to hide their dislike of the district’s fashion mandate. “I think it’s stupid,” says Wilson 9th grader Jamie Palazzolo. “What does school have to do with uniforms?”

—Jessica Portner