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Should Kids Wear School Uniforms?

By Sherry Bowen

Do school uniforms help curb violence, foster a better learning environment or promote discipline in students? Many people think so and are pushing schools to require them.

Opinions about uniforms and dress codes vary about as much as the reasons for having them -- parents seem to love them and students seem to tolerate them at best. Nevertheless, many schools have jumped on the bandwagon despite students' expressed concerns about their freedom of speech.

In a 1996 Long Beach, Calif. speech, former President Bill Clinton announced his support of that district's uniform initiative.

"School uniforms are one step that may help break the cycle of violence, truancy and disorder by helping young students understand what really counts is what kind of people they are," Clinton said. It didn't take much more than this presidential nod of approval to get the uniform ball rolling in many school districts across the country.

Requiring all students to wear the same cardigans, slacks or skirts is a practice employed throughout history and all over the world. England, for example, even required uniforms in all public schools for a time. Recently, it seems American schools desperate for peace and order are willing to follow this trend in order to get their students on the right track.

Present statistics in the Long Beach district seem to support the claim that the clothes students wear can affect the crime rate. Now, three years later, many districts have followed suit with public schools in Chicago, Dallas, Sacramento, Phoenix, Seattle, Kansas City, Memphis, Baltimore and Atlanta all making the jump to mandatory uniforms.

The issue of school uniforms, whether in a private or public school, is not clear-cut. They seem to work best when whole school communities discuss and agree upon a policy and then enforce it. And most proponents agree that requiring uniforms will only bring success if other programs accompany it.

Uniforms may be a part of the solution, but they are not the only way to improve schools.

Possible Benefits
Some parents and teachers believe uniforms:
Increase students' self-esteem because they do not have to participate in the "school fashion show." Dressing alike helps students learn that what really counts is on the inside.
Decrease the influence of gangs and gang violence. Uniforms make it more difficult to sneak in weapons, and easier to ban gang colors or symbols.
Improve learning by reducing distraction, sharpening focus on schoolwork and making the classroom a more serious environment.
Promote a sense of teamwork and increase school spirit.
Mask the income difference between families. All children dress the same, whether rich or poor.
Improve behavior and increase school attendance. Some students actually skip school to avoid embarrassment about their clothing.
Save families time and money. Many parents report that three uniforms cost about the same as one pair of designer jeans. Even some students admit that wearing the same colors everyday makes it easier to shop for new clothes.
Help administrators quickly identify outsiders who could be a danger to students.

At What Cost?
But some students and parents say uniforms:
Violate the right to freedom of speech and expression.
Cost too much for families who already struggle to make ends meet.
Merely put a band-aid on the problem of school violence and fail to address the real issues behind it.
Emphasize conformity, not individuality, and do not allow students to develop their identity.
Hide warning signs that point to problems. Often the way a child dresses can indicate the way he is feeling. Uniforms eliminate these red flags.
Offer ways for administrators to exert power and an unnecessary amount of authority.
Have not been statistically proven to decrease violence or promote discipline.
Fail to allow students to learn to make good choices based on their own values.
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