MAXWELL:  Making uniforms work for schools

9/25/1995 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Do clothes make the person? A growing number of parents, teachers, school officials and students in many parts of the country think so. I am referring, of course, to school uniforms, those coordinated outfits that make students look alike or almost alike.

Locally, members of the Palm Harbor Middle School Advisory Council are considering uniforms. The very idea of uniforms horrifies many people and it should if the uniform is discussed as a cure-all or as an end in itself. Schools that experience success with uniforms use them as a means to an end, with the community as a willing partner.

The Long Beach, Calif., School District is one of the nation’s success stories, and other districts considering uniforms should study its example.

Five years ago, the district _ which enrolls a cross section of the city’s population from all income levels, including whites, blacks, Latinos and Cambodians _ introduced uniforms in 70 of its elementary and middle schools. Parents and school staff wanted to find a way to cut down on school problems, such as fights, drugs, vandalism and gang-related violence.

Linda Harrington, vice principal of Mary Butler Elementary in Long Beach, told National Public Radio that, at first, she believed that uniforms were window dressing. She soon changed her mind, however: “I noticed that when students wear the uniform, they perform the role of a student more easily. They seem to be more tolerant of each other, and they seem to comply with the rules better. The uniform to them _ and to us _ is a symbol that while they are here, they are students first.”

Statistics support Harrington’s perception that her school is improving. Figures show that crime and suspensions were down by one-third in 1994 over the previous year at Mary Butler and the other campuses where students wore white tops and black or navy bottoms. Assaults, for example, were down by a third, and the number of weapons brought to school was cut in half. The district superintendent told NPR that, after test scores improved and absentee rates dropped dramatically, the board decided to expand the program districtwide.

But the superintendent is wisely cautious. “Uniforms are not a panacea,” he said. “We’ve described statistics on fights where it went from 1,100 to 500. That means that there were still 500 fights somewhere out there. That probably isn’t going to look very orderly to the observer.” To make sure the uniform program continues to succeed, the district is retraining teachers and bolstering parent involvement.

The program works also because many of the teachers wear white tops and dark bottoms. The students love it.

Some educators, such as Ted Mitchell, dean of UCLA’s Graduate School of Education, warn that no hard evidence shows that dress codes cause good behavior: “In and of itself, I think that school uniforms could mitigate some of the worst excesses caused by differences in social class and probably mitigate some of the differences brought about by different gang colors being worn in school. But alone, I don’t think that uniforms get the results that we see in Long Beach. That’s the result of an integrated effort to really change the school.”

Mitchell probably is right. When uniforms are introduced from the top down by, say, a politician trying to make a political statement, they are being introduced for all the wrong reasons and generally fail to get desired results. But when uniforms are introduced with community support to do what is best for children, the results are a safer environment and enhanced learning.

Then the school environment, with the uniform as its centerpiece, becomes what Mitchell calls an “integrated effort.”

Bill Maxwell is a columnist and editorial writer for the Times.