The Flagler County School Board on Oct. 18 agreed to move toward writing a uniform policy for district schools. The matter was discussed in 2007. The board almost endorsed uniforms then, only to retreat back to a dress code, which is in effect now. But the board has three new members, one of whom, John Fischer, is at the forefront of the initiative this time. Nancy Nally, a Flagler County parent and leading opponent of uniforms in school in 2007–and again this year–provides the following FAQ on the issue.
By Nancy Nally
Q. Do uniforms improve school security?
Proponents of uniforms argue that having students dressed in uniforms will make it easy to spot someone who doesn’t belong at the school. This is incorrect for several reasons.
1. Some courts have ruled that to be constitutional, public school uniform policies must have a parental “opt-out” clause. Children with disabilities may also be excluded from uniform policies to accommodate their needs. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that 100 percent of the students at any school will be wearing the uniform, effectively erasing the effect of making an intruder immediately visible since there will always be a small percentage of students out of uniform.
2. If uniforms are simply store-bought items in certain colors, they can be easily obtained by anyone who wishes to enter a school, camouflaging them and allowing them to blend into the student body.
3. Even if uniforms are mandated as utilizing specific shirts with embroidered logos, they are still difficult to identify from a distance, still making it easy for someone to blend into a crowd. Also, the use of embroidered shirts negates any arguable cost savings that uniform proponents could claim. (see next question).
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4. While it is true that wearing similar clothing makes it easier to keep groups together on field trips, this can be done in much simpler ways than requiring uniforms everyday of the entire school year when students may take field trips only two or three days per school year. For instance, it is currently done at Belle Terre Elementary by having the students buy class t-shirts for about $10 that they are requested to wear on field-trip days and for other special events. Students who join the class after the t-shirt purchase date are requested to wear a shirt the same color as the purchased shirt on field trip days.
5. Adult intruders are a major source of security concern at schools, particularly at the elementary schools. Unless teachers are also required to wear the uniform, a uniform policy for students does nothing to address that security concern. Even if teachers were required to wear a uniform, the constant stream of volunteers and parents in and out of the schools, not wearing uniforms, means there would always be people in the buildings not wearing uniforms for an intruder to blend in.
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Uniform advocates also claim that student-on-student violence decreases, and gang activity is prevented, when uniforms are required. No credible, conclusive research supports these claims. As researchers at the University of Notre Dame pointed out in their 1998 study on the subject of school uniforms, case studies that claim to show successes from implementing uniform policies in schools cannot show a clear cause-effect relationship between the uniform policies and the school improvements. The changes in the schools can almost certainly be credited to other events that took place at the same time the uniforms were implemented, or simply to the attention that was focused on the school’s problems by the implementation of the uniform policy. There is no research to support the idea that the actual wearing of uniforms actually causes an improvement in student behavior or security.
Q. Are uniforms cheaper and easier for parents?
Uniforms are simpler and easier in one way: assuming that your child’s uniform is clean and in their closet in the morning, there can be no arguments about what to wear to school once the child understands that uniforms are the rule. But that one possible advantage is outweighed by several downsides in both hassle and cost.
Cost savings is the most frequent argument put forward to support uniforms. Buying some cheap pants and shirts for students for school rather than the wardrobes they wear now might sound less expensive. In fact, for most families, it will increase their wardrobe costs. This would be especially true if embroidered shirts, expensive compared to discount store polo shirts, were required as part of the uniforms, just as it would be for students hard to fit–slim, tall, or plus sizes. And the costs would be especially huge the first year uniforms were implemented, when every family in town would be starting from scratch with no hand-me-downs or leftovers from the previous year that still fit, and no available used clothes for purchase. It’s no coincidence that the local Chamber of Commerce supported implementing uniforms in 2007. Some of the chamber’s members stood to make buckets of money from the measure.
Very few students are going to want to wear their uniforms after school. This will be especially true for older, more fashion-conscious students. They will end up needing their uniform wardrobe as well as an after-school wardrobe – two whole wardrobes instead of just one.
In many families, like mine, using clothing as gifts for birthdays and holidays cuts clothes shopping budgets. Outfits or clothes-store gift cards are practical gifts that children still love to get. Somehow, though, I doubt that most children would be thrilled to receive school uniforms from Nana for Christmas, or would want to spend their birthday gift card from the Gap on khakis and golf shirts they can wear to school.
Also, don’t forget about the laundry problems brought along with uniforms. Uniforms would end up generating twice as much laundry (and thus costs from higher water & electric bills and the need to purchase more detergent) for most families, since most students would wear two outfits in a day instead of one. Also, if only a very limited set of clothes could be worn to school, there would have to be constant vigilance to ensure that those clothes were clean for wearing. This would likely mean more frequent laundry for most households.
Q. Are uniforms easier to enforce than a dress code?
Contrary to popular belief, dress code rules still need to be part of uniform policies. Enforcement of uniform policies is not a black-and-white “either you are wearing the uniform or you are not” decision, with no gray area to interpret. Even if color pants and shirt types are dictated, there still needs to be dress code rules about what constitutes pants that are too tight or too loose, skirts and shorts that are too short, shirts that are see-through or too tight, etc. Uniforms do not remove the need for school staff to police these sorts of gray areas in the uniform policy. The process just dictates what colors of shirts and pants they are looking at when they do it, and adds yet another layer of clothing enforcement to rules that are already being policed by school staff. So, it actually makes enforcement more complex instead of less complex, because there are more rules to enforce.
Q. Do uniforms make students more equal socially?
Uniform supporters like to believe that promoting “sameness” in appearance through uniforms will encourage students to look past each others’ external appearance and instead at each others’ characters. This is unfortunately not realistic. In fact, uniforms don’t prevent social stratification and can actually promote it in some cases.
Even with a strictly mandated uniform, children from families with more money will still be apparent. Their uniforms will be higher quality, not as worn out or stained, and will fit better. Their accessories like shoes, watches, school bags, and haircuts will be more expensive and better maintained. These will still be noticed among the children and a class system by financial status will still be in place.
Judgments according to looks will still happen, and could even be increased and emphasized by uniforms. Certain students, who look good in anything, will still look good in uniforms. Students whose body type or coloring is not suited to the uniform’s color or cut will be forced into wearing unflattering clothes everyday with no way to dress themselves in a more flattering way like they could if they had more options. (Think about going into any workplace that requires uniforms and how some people look perfectly fine in the uniform and other people look terrible in it.)
The social scene for most children extends well outside the school doors. Social judging and “classing” will happen in those contacts outside school, and will not simply be left behind the moment everyone walks through the doors in their school uniforms. That is a reality of life for our children that school uniforms cannot change.
Q: Do uniforms prevent gang activity?
A frequent justification for uniforms is that mandating the wearing of uniforms prevents gangs from operating in a school because they cannot display their typical clothing signals. The reality is that gangs adapt and adopt signals that can be used within the dress code: accessories, hand signals, tattoos, etc. If gangs can operate in the highly controlled environment of a prison, a school uniform policy isn’t going to slow them down. The only effect of uniforms on gang activity is that the uniforms and use of less obvious signs by the members makes them blend in more to the school’s population – making them more difficult for school personnel to spot and monitor.
Q: Do uniforms improve students’ grades?
A major argument for uniforms is that they “enhance the learning environment.” However, there is no credible and conclusive research that supports that argument. Studies at both Notre Dame and Michigan State University both concluded that uniforms did not improve the learning environment.