Morris and Donna
The primary purpose of schools is to teach; however, students
cannot learn unless they feel safe. As educators, law enforcement
officials and policy-makers struggle with school safety issues,
more stringent dress codes and school uniform policies are
increasingly being considered as viable means to provide for
the safety and security of students.
Many public safety efforts today are guided by the broken
windows theory first advanced by criminologists James
Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling. According to the theory,
communities can prevent or reduce serious crimes by alleviating
an environment that encourages any criminal activity. That
is, by eliminating nuisance problems like littering, graffiti,
and broken windows in abandoned buildings, officials will
also reduce the likelihood criminals will feel welcome or
that greater crimes will occur.
The theory can also be applied to school safety. By removing
an environment that fosters violence, educators can enhance
safety, thereby promoting opportunities for academic excellence.
School site assessments, crisis management plans, full-time
school resource officers (SROs) and dress codes are but a
few of the measures being used by school districts to maintain
order and enhance the safety of students.
The question facing policy-makers is whether more stringent
dress codes, and perhaps, school uniforms would provide a
significantly safer environment more conducive to the pursuit
Historically, education officials have acted in loco parentis
concerning the discipline and supervision of students. This
tradition is reflected in the use of school dress codes and
uniforms. Uniforms have been a part of education for over
a century, although their use declined significantly during
the middle of the 20th century, when the courts were inundated
by cases concerning individual freedoms and rights, and student
In recent years, in the wake of increased school-based violence
and gang activity, many communities have implemented tighter
restrictions on student dress and a growing number have implemented
school uniform policies. A 1992 survey of parental attitudes
regarding dress codes assessed the perceived impact of uniforms
on self-esteem, peer pressure, safety, and finances (Woods
and Ogletree). Most parents believed that uniforms provided
a measure of protection against gang activity, eliminated
some competition and peer pressure among students, and were
more economical than other school clothes. The survey also
concluded that active parental involvement was a necessity
to ensure the success of such a policy.
Those school officials, parents and researchers who favor
the use of school uniforms argue that they enhance the ability
of the school to achieve its basic academic purpose, diminish
the differences among socio-economic levels, promote self-confidence
and school spirit, and improve student behavior.
- In 1996, at the direction of President Clinton, the U.S.
Department of Education published and disseminated a Manual
of School Uniforms to all 16,000 school districts in the
United States encouraging the establishment of a school
uniform policy. The document identified the following benefits
to school uniforms:
- Decreasing violence and theft,
- Preventing gang members from wearing gang clothing
- Instilling student discipline,
- Helping to resist peer pressure,
- Helping students concentrate on academics, and
- Aiding in the recognition of intruders.
- In all, 37 state legislatures, including those in California,
Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, New York,
Tennessee, and Utah, as well as Virginias General
Assembly, have enacted legislation enabling local communities
to set their own uniform policies.
- Presently, 80 percent of the public schools in Chicago
require uniforms, as do 60 percent of the schools in Miami.
Additionally, 30 percent of San Franciscos public
schools have uniform programs, as do 95 percent of the schools
in New Orleans, 50 percent in Cincinnati, 85 percent in
Cleveland, and 65 percent in Boston.
- Both Long Beach, California, and Birmingham, Alabama have
mandatory uniform policies.
- On May 8, 2000, the Philadelphia Board of Education became
the first large city board to require all students in public
schools to wear uniforms. A voluntary uniform program existed
for several years. Under the new mandate, each of the citys
258 schools will choose its own required uniform. Punishment
of students for failure to wear a uniform will not commence
until the 2001-02 academic year.
- Those parents and students who oppose uniforms contend
that they infringe upon the First Amendment rights of students,
are used as an unnecessary means of controlling students;
do not deter violence; have not been proven to enhance academic
excellence; and provide an economic hardship to certain
- The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), through its
Public Education Department, argues that there are no empirical
studies supporting the benefits of school uniforms and that,
at this point, they are simply experimental. In 1996, the
ACLU conducted focus groups with high school students to
determine what the students believed would reduce school
violence. The conclusions included:
- Schools should address racism and cultural conflict.
- Safe corridor programs should be implemented to protect
students going to and from school.
- School entrances should be secured.
- Additional activities and clubs should be established.
- Assemblies should be held regularly to allow students
to express their concerns.
- Job placement opportunities should be provided for
- Conflict resolution techniques should be taught to
In 1969, in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School
District, the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed that school administrators
are state actors whose discipline of students is constrained
by the federal Constitution. The Court held that students
have the right to freedom of expression in school, only unless
or until the exercise of that right materially and substantially
interferes with the requirements of appropriate discipline
or collides with the rights of others in the school.
- In 1972, in further support of limitations on students
freedom of expression, in Karr v. Schmidt, the U.S. Fifth
Circuit Court of Appeals held that a right to wear
ones hair in a public high school in the length and
style that suits the wearer, is not provided within
the plain meaning of the Constitution.
- In Kelley v. Johnson (1976), a case involving Suffolk
County (New York) police officers, the U.S. Supreme Court
concluded that an individuals liberty interest in
his own appearance cannot be infringed upon unless there
is a rational basis related to a legitimate government interest.
The burden rests with the government to show a public
need for the regulation. The Johnson decision provided
a framework for assessing student discipline cases. Although
a person has a basic liberty interest in his personal appearance
that cannot be infringed upon without rational basis, the
government was afforded wide latitude in their
- The purpose of schools is to teach. In Humphries v. Lincoln
Parish School Board (1985), the Louisiana Appellate Court
reaffirmed the right of a football coach to require that
his students be clean-shaven. The coach argued successfully
that his rules were integral to a total discipline
program that supported academic and athletic excellence.
The court, noting the success of his program, held that
the rules were reasonable as they related to an educational
- Over time, the Fifth, Sixth, Ninth, Tenth and Eleventh
U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal have reaffirmed the authority
of school officials to establish and enforce reasonable
personal appearance requirements. They typically uphold
the rights of school boards to make the determination. The
First, Fourth, Seventh, and Eighth Circuits, on the other
hand, generally have ruled in favor of students, finding
that personal grooming regulations cannot be upheld, often
because they are unnecessary.
- Concerning dress codes, specifically in Pyle v. South
Hadley School Community (1993), a Massachusetts District
Court upheld school officials right to ban offensive
t-shirts, agreeing that such clothing was inconsistent with
the districts basic educational mission.
- In another clothing-related decision, Jeglin v. San Jacinto
Unified School District (1993), a California District Court
upheld a school districts right to ban students from
wearing any clothing with a collegiate or professional sports
insignia, if the district could substantiate the connection
between such clothing and gang activity in the school.
In summary, the courts have established some parameters by
which school officials may regulate personal appearance. Personal
appearance is protected unless it is vulgar, indecent, obscene
or insulting; unless it carries a message that encourages
inappropriate behavior (e.g., violence, drug use, smoking);
or if there is a reasonable basis, such as maintaining discipline,
for restricting such appearance.
Those considering policy revisions should consider the weaknesses,
as well as the strengths, of uniform policies. In 1997, Nadine
Strossen, then-President of the ACLU, told the New York Times
that uniform policies are only vulnerable to challenge if
they fail to provide uniforms for those who cant afford
them or if they fail to include an opt-out provision for religious
or cultural beliefs that would be in conflict with the wearing
of a uniform.
Appearance-related problems usually fall into four general
- Value placed on appearance and clothing, especially during
- Distorted values and attitudes,
- Antisocial and/or criminal behavior, and
- Disruptive or inappropriate appearance.
School uniforms tend to polarize two basic student needs:
the right to freedom of expression and the need for a safe,
productive learning environment. Policy-makers must provide
the appropriate balance between the two.
Presently, no state legislature or state department of education
mandates student uniforms or specific dress codes. In forty-two
states, local districts are authorized to implement uniform
requirements. In at least 37 states, one or more local school
districts have adopted a school uniform policy.
Officials in Long Beach, California, believe that their pilot
school uniform program, implemented in 11 schools serving
8,000 students, resulted in fewer truancies, fewer tardies,
fewer discipline problems, better grades, and higher achievement.
Since the mandatory uniform policy was established, school-related
crime has declined 76 percent and attendance has reached its
highest levels in the districts history. Because the
policy was introduced at the same time as a number of other
discipline measures, the correlation between uniforms and
positive results is difficult to assess accurately.
Because no long-term empirical studies have been conducted
to assess the effectiveness of school uniforms or specific
dress codes, the results remain anecdotal and unproven. Additionally,
antisocial and criminal activity generally has been declining,
both within schools and within communities across Virginia
and the country. The specific causes for the eight-year decline
in crime rates have not been established; accordingly, some
argue that no conclusion can be drawn concerning the impact
of uniforms or more stringent dress codes on crime rates in
schools. Others might contend that they do not exacerbate
Presently, educators and the public are divided on the issue.
As crime rates continue to decline and the safety of schools
increases, there may be less interest in restrictive policies
toward students. To defend any policy or action in court,
a policy-maker must define the best interests involved and
demonstrate how the interest is served by the restriction.
In Virginia, the growing use of full-time law enforcement
officers in schools (SROs) may be viewed as a better alternative
than uniforms to enhance the safety and security of school
The 1995 General Assembly enacted §22.1-79.2 of the Code
of Virginia which enables local boards to establish uniform
requirements. In June 1996, under the leadership of then-Superintendent
of Public Instruction William C. Bosher, Jr., the Virginia
Department of Education developed and disseminated model guidelines
to provide guidance to local boards.
Those policy-makers considering implementing more stringent
dress code policies must be able to demonstrate that a certain
kind of dress can be linked to disruptive behavior or behavior
that directly infringes on the rights of others and that such
policies do not discriminate against any minority population.
When considering school uniforms, policy-makers should consider
three questions (Isaacson, 1998):
- Are the requirements legally defensible?
- Do they actually restore or keep order?
- Are less restrictive requirements a better alternative?
From the least to the most restrictive, policies that can
be considered include:
- Not instituting a dress code.
- Institute a dress code that outlines general goals and
allows school officials to establish specific policies.
- Institute a district-wide, specific dress code.
- Authorize a voluntary uniform policy.
- Authorize a mandatory uniform policy.
The most successful policies have proven to be those in which
students, parents and community members were actively involved
in the development process (and thus, developed positive views
concerning the need for and results of such initiatives),
students rights to religious expression were accommodated,
opt-out provisions were established, and financial assistance
was provided as necessary.
Click here for summary of recent Virginia Legislative history
Codes and Uniforms.
- Cohn, Carl. Mandatory School Uniforms, The
School Administrator, February 1996.
- Dulatt, David E. The Place for Uniforms in the School
Dress Code: A National and State Perspective, NASSP
Journal of Secondary and Higher Education, Vol. 2, May 1999.
- Isaacson, Lynne. Student Dress Policies, ERIC
Digest, Number 17, 1998.
- Majestic, Ann L. Student Dress Codes in the 1990s,
National School Boards Associations Council of School
- McCarthy, Colman. Uniforms Arent the Answer,
Washington Post, March 16, 1996.
- Superintendents Memo No. 112, Virginia Department
of Education, June 14, 1996.
- Woods, H. & Ogletree, I. Parents Opinions
of the Uniform Student Dress Code, ERIC Document Reproduction
Number ED 367 729, 1992.
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