Dressed to kill: Do clothes make the child?

At the five Watson Chapel schools in Pine Bluff, Ark., junior high students are a sea of burgundy, green, and white. The elementary school kids can wear blue. Parents like the idea—it’s easier to dress their kids—and kids say it eliminates competition to dress the best.

Watson Chapel is one of many districts experimenting with dress codes this year in the hope of reducing the risk of violence and other behavior problems. But critics of dress codes question whether such strategies ultimately are effective.

Under a bill passed in the last state legislative session, all Arkansas public school districts are required to look into whether uniforms would suit them. Referenda will be on school election ballots this year.

The law requires the formation of a committee in each district to make recommendations to each board. If a school board does not do anything by September 2000, then 5 percent of any district’s registered voters can sign a petition to get the issue on the ballot anyway.

“The idea behind the law was mainly to get the school boards to deal with the issue … it’s gotten a lot of attention because of the shooting at Columbine and the trenchcoats,” said Rep. Kevin Smith, D-Stuttgart, who sponsored the bill.

Crises like the April 20, 1999, shooting deaths of 14 students and a teacher at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., and the March 24, 1998, shooting deaths of five at Westside Middle School in Jonesboro, Ark., are prompting educators to look at how dress might affect student behavior.

The 3,500-student, five-school Watson Chapel School District has relied on its fenced-in high school campus, vigilant teacher supervision, and a city-provided police officer for security in recent years.

Now, they think uniforms can help.

Elementary students can wear khaki or blue slacks and white, light blue, or burgundy polo-style shirts. High school students will wear the same color pants, but shirts can be white, hunter green, or burgundy. Besides pants, students may wear skirts, shorts, or skorts, said district Superintendent Danny Knight.

The district doesn’t allow really baggy or short bottoms. Teachers aren’t required to wear uniforms.

Knight said the first week of school was one of the smoothest starts to a school year he can remember.

“If we get kids forgetting about what goes on their backs every morning and concentrating about what’s going into their heads …,” Knight said.

Christie Mounts, the mother of a 5-year-old kindergartner at Edgewood Elementary, said, “We had our doubts at first. It sounded like it was cutting down on individualism.” But she also said it would be easier to drive by and spot someone who didn’t belong on the campus.

Troy Lowe, principal of Jacksonville Middle School, said his school also just adopted uniforms. “We think it will cut down on any kind of status symbol. I guess safety is an issue, even it’s perceived to be safer than it was,” he said.

The middle school students can wear khaki or navy pants and burgundy, light blue, or white shirts.

“They seem to be a little quieter, and maybe the uniforms have helped,” Lowe said.

The Arkansas School Boards Association is neutral on the issue. “It’s an issue of local control. It best works when it’s thoughtfully planned out by all parties involved—students, teachers, administrators, and parents,” said spokesman John Pennington.

The Unified School District in Long Beach, Calif., is credited as being the first public school district in the country to use uniforms in all its elementary and middle schools. The district has 90,000 students and is the third-largest school district in California.

“Youngsters are getting along better with one another,” district spokesman Richard Van Der Laan said. “Kids from different backgrounds, they’re not putting each other down or ridiculing you because of what you’re wearing.”

Midway through last school year, Van Der Laan said that since students from kindergarten through eighth grades began wearing uniforms in 1994, the district has seen a 91 percent drop in school crime, a record improvement in student attendance, fewer student suspensions, and some increases in test scores.

Those results are the kind that Oklahoma’s Muskogee High School would like to replicate as school officials try to sell reluctant students and their parents on the idea of school uniforms next fall.

If there is enough support, Principal Jim Wilson could bring the idea to the school board.

The idea isn’t a new one in Muskogee. This year, students at Muskogee’s two middle schools began wearing uniforms. But getting student support may be the difficult part, if reaction from some freshman students is an indication.

“I think uniforms are the stupidest idea a person could have,” Aaron Eby told the Muskogee Phoenix. Eby was among several freshmen who wrote essays on the topic for teacher Tobi Fillman’s freshman English class.

Students said they don’t believe instituting uniforms will help curb school violence. “I don’t think they would solve anything,” said freshman Leslie Geminn.

Uniforms aren’t enough to bring change by themselves, said Col. Daniel Crum, ROTC instructor at Muskogee High School.

A conservative dress code, like the khakis and polo shirts being suggested, needs to be part of a bigger effort, he said: “We’ve got to do something to create more respect.”

Some efforts already are being made in that direction at Muskogee High School, with character education classes and the revival of homecoming.

Character education classes take place every two weeks for freshmen, sophomores, and juniors. In those classes, students learn about self-awareness and values.

Uniforms and conservative dress codes like those being considered by Muskogee can make a school safer, said Michael Stephen Dorn, school safety specialist with the Georgia Emergency Management Agency.

Dorn said taking away baggy pants and requiring students to tuck in shirts makes it harder for students to hide weapons or other contraband.

Freshman Nathan Broderick said he isn’t sure what effect uniforms might have, but it might keep people from making fun of each other as much.

Dorn calls teasing and taunting “triggering behaviors.”

Triggering behaviors can lead to more serious incidents, like fist fights, knifings, and shootings. He said minimizing those triggering behaviors creates a calmer school environment and decreases violence.

Though there’s no definitive research on the topic, Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center, thinks dress codes can have a significant impact on student behavior.

“Students tend to behave the way they dress,” he said. But he cautioned that dress codes should be a local decision based on the needs and the will of each community. He also said dress codes alone aren’t likely to keep schools safe. n


Long Beach Unified School District, 1515 Hughes Way, Long Beach, CA 90810; phone (562) 997-8000, web http:// www.lbusd.k12.ca.us.

Georgia Emergency Management Agency, P.O. Box 18055, Atlanta, GA 30316-0055; phone (404) 635-7000, fax (404) 635-7205, web http://www.doas. state.ga.us/GEMA.

National School Safety Center, 141 Duesenburg Drive, Suite 11, Westlake Village, CA 91362; phone (805) 373-9977, fax (805) 373-9277, eMail info@nssc1.org, web http://www.nssc1.org.

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