Pros and Cons
Every school is in essence a learning environment. That which aids learning is acceptable, and that which hinders it should be unacceptable. Add to this the fears of school violence and student safety and you can see why many school boards are calling for uniforms. This issue brings up numerous questions:
What is a school uniform?
What are the potential benefits of having school uniforms?
What are the potential problems with having school uniforms?
How can you get parents and students to buy-in to the idea of school uniforms?
What does the Supreme Court have to say on this issue?
Are school uniforms truly effective?1. School Uniforms Defined
School uniforms range from the formal to the informal.
Some schools that have implemented school uniforms have chosen what one usually thinks of in connection to Catholic schools: nice pants and white shirts for boys, jumpers and white shirts for girls. However, most public schools are turning to something more casual and more acceptable to parents and students: khakis or jeans and knit shirts of varying colors. The latter appear to be more affordable too because they can be used outside of school. Many school districts that have implemented school uniforms have provided some sort of financial assistance for families that can not afford the extra expense.
2. Potential Benefits of School Uniforms
Preventing gang colors, etc. in schools
Decreasing violence and theft because of clothing and shoes
Instilling discipline among students
Reducing need for administrators and teachers to be 'clothes police' (for example, determining whether shorts are too short, etc.)
Reducing distractions for students
Instilling a sense of community
Helping schools recognize those who do not belong on campus
3. Potential problems of School Uniforms
Students and parents argue that uniforms violate their freedom of expression (see below for more about what the Supreme Court has to say on this)
Parents raise concerns about the cost
Families fear it might interfere with religious clothing like yarmulkes
4. Parent and Student Support for Uniforms
Make uniforms more casual - jeans and a knit shirt
Allow students an outlet for their own expression: buttons to support political candidates, but not gang related paraphernalia
Provide financial assistance to those parents who can not afford the uniforms
Accommodate students religious beliefs. This is required by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Make your program voluntary if community pressure is too large
Institute an 'opt-out' provision. Not including this would probably cause a court to rule against your program unless there is proof that lesser measures are ineffective.
Make uniforms an integral part of the school safety program.
5. Supreme Court Rulings
In Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School (1969), the court said that a student's freedom of expression in school must be protected unless it would seriously interfere with the requirements of appropriate discipline. In the dissenting opinion written by Justice Hugo Black, he said, "If the time has come when pupils of state-supported schools, ..., can defy and flout orders of school officials to keep their minds on their own schoolwork, it is the beginning of a new revolutionary era of permissiveness in this country fostered by the judiciary."
Students are still protected under Tinker. However, with an increase in school violence and gang-related activities, the political climate seems to have turned more conservative, and the Supreme Court has begun to return many decisions back to the discretion of the local school board.
6. Effectiveness of School Uniforms
There are two types of evidence to look at on the issue of effectiveness. One is a statistical study produced by the University of Notre Dame, and the other is the actual words and beliefs of school officials who have implemented school uniforms.
Notre Dame's Department of Sociology produced a study in 1998 concerning school uniforms. Their findings using 10th grade students showed that uniforms have no direct effect on "substance abuse, behavioral problems or attendance." (Brunsma, 1) It also claimed a negative effect on student achievements for those students considered 'pro-school'. (Brunsma, 1)
With that said, we now turn to the less scientific words and thoughts of administrators in schools that have implemented uniform policies. Note that all of the following were from middle schools. In Long Beach, officials found that the year after their mandatory program with parental opt-out was implemented, overall school crime decreased by 36%. In Seattle, Washington, which has a mandatory policy with an opt-out saw a decrease in truancy and tardies. They had also not had a reported incident of theft. As a final example from Baltimore, Maryland, Rhonda Thompson, an official from a middle school that has a voluntary policy noticed a "sense of seriousness about work." Whether any of these results can be directly linked to school uniforms is hard to say. However, it can be said that something has changed to make the officials take notice. We can not discount the coincidence of school uniforms with these changes either. If you would like more information about schools that have implemented uniform policies, see the Department of Education's Manual on School Uniforms.
Schools must educate students in a safe environment. Over time, education has often slipped away as the main focus of schools. As we have unfortunately seen, school safety is such an enormous issue that it is hard to come up with policies that truly work without turning a school into a prison camp. After the events at Columbine where students were singled out partially for what they wore, and after numerous thefts and murders over designer shoes, it is obvious why many school districts want to institute uniforms. We must realize that learning cannot take place without some sense of decorum and discipline. Possibly instituting school uniforms might help bring back that sense of decorum and allow teachers to do what they are hired to do: teach.