Do school uniforms stifle expression or protect students?

Over the past five years, requiring students to wear khakis or Tartan plaid skirts has become almost as trendy as day-glo was in the 1980s. Urban schools across the United States have turned to uniforms to help combat gang colors and violence, inspire discipline, and reduce pressures on kids who can't afford the latest Abercrombie & Fitch fashions.

But states like Connecticut, Florida, and Texas are seeing a growing backlash against the idea. Students and parents - especially in the suburbs - counter that uniform policies are unconstitutional and stifle self- expression, sparking debate over whether dressing students alike is helpful.

Some critics argue uniforms aren't always cost-effective and are just a "quick fix" for urban-school problems that demand much deeper reform. They're also testing uniforms' legal ground.

In Texas, for instance, 18 parents have sued a suburban Dallas school district, challenging the constitutionality of uniforms in public schools. In Waterbury, Conn., students who were suspended or expelled for breaking a dress code claim the code violates their civil rights and right to a free public education. But Waterbury Mayor Philip Giordano defended the policy, saying it has reduced distractions and disciplinary problems in class.

Cities like New York and Philadelphia have recently mandated uniforms for just such reasons. In fact, crime and fighting has dropped in schools where kids wear uniforms. More than two-thirds of principals at middle and elementary schools with uniforms also saw improvement in their students' concentration on work, according to a recent survey by Land's End (which is a uniform supplier) and the National Association of Elementary School Principals. Also emerging is a shift in style toward a less-formal look: Students can wear pants or shorts with polo shirts.

Ray Rivera, principal of K-8 Eastwood Knolls in El Paso, Texas, recalls that before his school required uniforms six years ago, students would wear things like a Chicago Bulls jacket to symbolize gangs.

"Occurrence of fighting among students was pretty much an everyday event," he says. "But last year, we had only two ... fights. We don't have gang and drug problems anymore. It makes it very easy for 'have-nots' and 'haves' to get along because they all look alike."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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