WHEN Chadwick Bethune showed up at Chicago's Calumet High School last week sporting the latest in urban chic - brand new, $130 Air Jordan basketball shoes - his envious classmates groaned.
So did school officials. The black, mid-top, mesh and patent leather sneakers with red trim dangerously trumpeted the colors of the South Side neighborhood's powerful Blackstone gang.
The school immediately banned the popular footwear and issued Mr. Bethune an ultimatum: Shed the shoes or face suspension. Bethune and about 25 other students protested, and police were summoned to enforce the ban.
Next Thursday, Calumet's school council will vote to mandate that beginning in September all 1,000 students dress in conservative gray and burgundy uniforms.
In Chicago and nationwide, thousands of public schools are considering adopting dress codes or uniforms to improve discipline, enhance classroom performance, and reduce gang violence.
"A growing number of schools are looking at the prospect of uniforms," says Gary Marx, senior associate of the American Association of School Administrators in Arlington, Va.
Already, large school districts in several states - including California, Washington, Arizona, Florida, New York, and South Carolina - have mandatory or voluntary uniform policies. More than 40 percent of school districts nationwide use dress codes, according to a 1994 survey of 700 school districts by the National School Boards Association (NSBA) in Alexandria, Va.
"Gang-related issues are pretty prevalent as a reason for using dress codes," which often prohibit caps, earrings for boys, beepers, baggy clothes, and other gang-linked paraphernalia, says Jay Butler of the NSBA. School districts generally have found the codes "effective," though not a cure-all, he said.
Sharp decreases in school crime reported by some districts that switched to uniforms have encouraged others to "follow suit." In one prominent example, after Long Beach, Calif., became the nation's first district to require uniforms at elementary and middle schools in 1994, crime dropped 36 percent among the 60,000 students.
President Clinton in February praised Long Beach and said public schools should be allowed to require uniforms if it means "teenagers will stop killing each other over designer jackets." Mr. Clinton asked the Department of Education to distribute how-to manuals on uniform policies to the country's 16,000 school districts.
In Chicago, the school board in January required all schools to implement a uniform policy or dress code unless the local school council - an elected body of teachers, parents, students, and community members - voted against it.
About half of Chicago's 553 public schools, which have a total enrollment of 410,000 students, already require uniforms and many have reported decreases in school violence as a result. "If some schools are showing dramatic success, why not encourage all our schools to do the same?" says school board president Gery Chico.
At Calumet High, a three-story, 1920s-era brick structure, gang violence is so rampant that local police are called in weekly, says community relations officer Sgt. Brenda Shead. Calumet teachers, administrators, and many parents support uniforms.
"There is no way you can live in these neighborhoods without some awareness of color combinations," says Odessa I. Carmichael, a school council member who has taught English at Calumet for 27 years. "If you've got on the wrong colors and you walk into the wrong neighborhood, you can get killed."
The policy would also blur the economic disparities between Calumet's haves and have nots, many of whom live in housing projects, group homes, and shelters. "We have a lot of kids who try to keep up with the Jones's fashion-wise. They tend to equate their self-worth with what they wear," says coach Johnie Butler. Expensive coats and shoes are often stolen at school, he adds.
Still, both advocates and critics agree that uniforms alone cannot produce better, more secure schools. And, critics warn that dress requirements must not infringe upon lawful freedom of expression. So far, lower courts have generally upheld school dress codes.