They come in soft yellow polo shirts. They come in white blouses. They come in plaid skirts or jumpers. They come in pleated pants, navy or khaki. They are all made of durable fabric. They come in all sizes. They are school uniforms. And despite their name, uniform, which means "remaining the same in all cases and at all times," school uniforms can still look different from one student to another.
Over the past twenty years, school uniforms have become a big business. The Statistic Brain Website (2017) counts that 23% of all public and private schools have a uniform policy. That means there are annual school uniform sales of over $1.3 million annually, with the average cost of $249/student.
School Uniforms Defined
Uniforms used at schools can range from the formal to the informal. Some schools that have implemented them have chosen what one usually thinks of in connection to private or parochial schools: nice trousers and white shirts for boys, jumpers and white shirts for girls. However, most public schools are turning to something more casual and more acceptable to parents and students: khakis or jeans and knit shirts of varying colors. The latter appears to be more affordable too because they can be used outside of school. Many school districts that have implemented uniforms have provided some sort of financial assistance for families that can not afford the extra expense.
Pros of School Uniforms
“Uniform of a soldier and uniform of a student both are equally needed for the nation.”
― Amit Kalantri, (author) Wealth of Words
Some of the reason offered to support school uniforms are the following:
- Preventing gang colors, etc. in schools
- Decreasing violence and theft because of clothing and shoes
- Instilling discipline among students
- Reducing need for administrators and teachers to be 'clothes police' (for example, determining whether shorts are too short, etc.)
- Reducing distractions for students
- Instilling a sense of community
- Helping schools recognize those who do not belong on campus
The arguments for school uniforms hinge on their effectiveness in practice. Anecdotal information from administrators in schools that have implemented uniform policies point to the fact that they do have a positive effect on discipline and the school. Note that all of the following were from middle schools.
In Long Beach (1995), officials found that the year after their mandatory program with parental opt-out was implemented, overall school crime decreased by 36%. More recently, a 2012 study found that after a year of having a uniform policy at a middle school in Nevada, school police data showed a 63% decrease in police log reports. In Seattle, Washington, which has a mandatory policy with an opt-out saw a decrease in truancy and tardies. They had also not had a reported incident of theft.
As a final example from Baltimore, Maryland, Rhonda Thompson, an official from a middle school that has a voluntary policy noticed a "sense of seriousness about work." Whether any of these results can be directly linked to school uniforms is hard to say. However, it can be said that something has changed to make the officials take notice. We can not discount the coincidence of school uniforms with these changes either. If you would like more information about schools that have implemented uniform policies, see the Department of Education's Manual on School Uniforms.
Cons of School Uniforms
“On school uniforms Don't these schools do enough damage making all these kids think alike, now they have to make them look alike too?" -George Carlin, comedian
Some of the arguments made against uniforms include:
- Students and parents argue that uniforms violate their freedom of expression (see the next page of this article for more about what the Supreme Court has to say on this)
- Some students might choose to express their individuality through other means such as body piercing which is harder to regulate.
- Parents raise concerns about the cost.
- Because uniforms single out students as being from one school, this might lead to trouble with students from other schools.
- Families fear it might interfere with religious clothing like yarmulkes.
- A new policy for school uniforms can be time-consuming and difficult to enforce.
There are concerns that uniforms are often associated with low-income, urban school settings. The Institute of Educational Science National Center for Educational Statistics noted that in 2013-14:
A higher percentage of schools where 76 percent or more of students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch required school uniforms than did schools where lower percentages of students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.
Other concerns have been raised by David L. Brunsma, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Missouri-Columbia. He analyzed data from schools nationwide, and published research with co-author, Kerry Ann Rockquemore that concluded that 10th-grade public school students who wore uniforms did no better than those who did not in attendance, behavior, or drug use.
The effectiveness of uniforms will be a subject of continuing research as more schools look for solutions to socio-economic problems of attendance, discipline, bullying, student motivation, family engagement, or economic need. And while a school uniform may be only a small part of the solution for all of these ills, they do solve one major issue, the dress code violation. As Principal Rudolph Saunders explains to Education Week (1/12/2005) that before school uniforms, “I would spend 60 to 90 minutes a day on dress-code violations."
Of course, there are always those students who will try to alter a uniform for individuality. Skirts can be rolled up, pants can be dropped below the waist, and (inappropriate?) messages on T-shirts can still be read through issued button-down shirts. In short, there is no guarantee that student wearing a school uniform will always meet the dress code standard.
Supreme Court Rulings
In Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School (1969), the court said that a student's freedom of expression in school must be protected unless it would seriously interfere with the requirements of appropriate discipline. In the dissenting opinion written by Justice Hugo Black, he said, "If the time has come when pupils of state-supported schools… can defy and flout orders of school officials to keep their minds on their own schoolwork, it is the beginning of a new revolutionary era of permissiveness in this country fostered by the judiciary."
Students are still protected under Tinker. However, with an increase in school violence and gang-related activities, the political climate seems to have turned more conservative, and the Supreme Court has begun to return many decisions back to the discretion of the local school board. The issue of school uniforms itself, however, has not yet been dealt with by the Supreme Court.
Schools must educate students in a safe environment. Over time, education has often slipped away as the main focus of schools. As we have unfortunately seen, school safety is such an enormous issue that it is hard to come up with policies that truly work without turning a school into a prison camp. After the events at Columbine High School in 1999 where students were singled out partially for what they wore, and after numerous thefts and murders over designer shoes, it is obvious why many school districts want to institute uniforms. We must realize that learning cannot take place without some sense of decorum and discipline. Possibly instituting school uniforms might help bring back that sense of decorum and allow teachers to do what they are hired to do: teach.
Parent and Student Support for Uniforms
- Many schools have in fact made the choice to have students wear school uniforms. Until the Supreme Court rules otherwise, this is entirely up to the school district. However, they do still have to follow state and federal anti-discrimination laws when they make their polices.Following are some ideas to make the use of uniforms easier to accept by students and parents:
- Make uniforms more casual - jeans and a knit shirt
- Allow students an outlet for their own expression: buttons to support political candidates, but not gang related paraphernalia
- Provide financial assistance to those parents who can not afford the uniforms
- Accommodate students religious beliefs. This is required by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
- Make your program voluntary if community pressure is too large
- Institute an 'opt-out' provision. Not including this would probably cause a court to rule against your program unless there is proof that lesser measures are ineffective.
- Make uniforms an integral part of the school safety program.