A Fit for School Uniforms

Call it an attack on brand-name envy, black trench coats, and bare midriffs in schools.

But in these post-Columbine days, educators from the Bible Belt to gang-infested inner cities are asking students to wear uniforms as one way to bring more safety, focus on academics, and discipline.

Uniforms do make it easier to spot strangers in a school. They do curb fashion fads that stigmatize poor students and strap parents' income. They are a visible sign that public schools expect more of students. They are a natural step beyond requiring uniforms for marching bands, athletes, and cheerleaders. At the least, they help parents get children out the door faster in the morning.

Evidence is mounting - but not yet definitive - that uniforms (or the lesser alternative of strict dress codes) do curb gangs, reduce violence, raise attendance, and generally help students get along and respect teachers. They are one answer to a permissiveness - in both clothes and ethics - that has seeped into public education.

But schools must be careful before adopting standardized garb as easily as they do standardized state testing.

Courts generally uphold uniform policies. But many parents may run up a school's legal bills with the constitutional challenge that they violate freedom of expression. A good rule of thumb is that 80 percent of parents should endorse uniforms before a school requires them.

And teachers and other staff should set an example by wearing comparable clothing. Low-income students should get help in paying for uniforms (usually under $200).

Uniforms are best implemented first in lower grades. And they should not be too dressy, bland, or ill-fitting.

Most of all, uniforms are not a panacea for teenage angst. They're just one accessory in a wardrobe of solutions for troubled public schools.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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