Each year more and more schools adopt some form of dress code. While some challenges have been made concerning their constitutionality, in general court rulings have supported codes that are instituted properly and can be shown to be rationally related to a legitimate pedagogical purpose. The safety of the children in the schools appears to be the overriding concern considered by the courts.
Public schools have the responsibility to have safe and orderly schools that maintain an environment conducive to learning. The National School Board Association estimates that approximately 135,000 guns are brought to America’s 85,000 public schools each day. This is one reason school districts use to implement dress codes. Some schools even require students to have the belt line exposed at all times for fear of guns concealed under clothing. Additionally, educators report a decrease in violence, a reduction of fights in schools and improved student achievement when dress codes have been implemented.
Safety is one reason for a dress code; however, many educators believe that a dress code also promotes a positive educational environment. In an attempt to counter violence, many public schools implement a dress code or require students to wear uniforms. The idea of uniforms even reached the halls of Congress when then-President Clinton endorsed them in his 1996 State of the Union address. After this speech, the U.S. Department of Education disseminated the Manual of School Uniforms to all 16,000 school districts in the nation. The manual stated potential benefits, such as decreasing violence and theft, preventing students from wearing gang-related colors to school, instilling student discipline, helping to resist peer pressure, helping students concentrate on academics and aiding in recognition of intruders.
It is estimated that almost 25 percent of the nation’s public schools are expected to have a dress code this year. In September, Philadelphia public school students started wearing uniforms for the first time. They joined districts like Long Beach, Clovis, Fresno, Huston and Dade County, Florida, in having a dress or uniform code. These codes were established because of the success demonstrated by districts with a dress code.
A survey reported by the New York Police Department listed many positive results after a uniform policy was begun in 2000: overall crime was down 14.7 percent and there was an improved sense of belonging and tolerance.
Other results of the research revealed that 68 percent of the parents believed the uniform policy improved overall academic performance. Eighty-eight percent of the parents thought the code reduced teasing between boys and girls. Eighty-four percent felt the uniform code promoted equality between the sexes. Perhaps most revealing was the fact that 80 percent of the girls and 62 percent of the boys reported liking to wear uniforms.
The United States has changed drastically since the early common schools. Horace Mann thought the best school was on a log with the student on one end and the teacher on the other. This was truly individualized instruction. With the number of students growing every year, problems arise. There are more people living in California than live in the entire nation of Canada. One out of every eight students in school in the United States is in school in California. Larger numbers bring different problems from those faced by Horace Mann.
It seems that if a dress or uniform code can possibly improve academic success, reduce violence, increase the safety of students, reduce class/economic envy and improve deteriorating schools, why not implement a code? The public schools must take whatever actions are needed to protect the children. If a dress code helps, then one should be implemented within the constitutional boundaries established by the courts. This issue seems not to be about civil liberties or freedom of speech but about improving our public schools.
Larry Wilder, Ed.D., directs the administrative services program in the Fresno Pacific University School of Education. He served the Clovis and Selma unified school districts in various capacities and spent 19 years at the Fresno County Office of Education, retiring as assistant superintendent