Uniforms have existed since the beginning of time. Uniforms have been instituted throughout history for the purpose of instilling a sense of unity and membership among groups from girl scouts to the national guard. Recently, uniforms have become a pressing issue amongst public school officials. Many have begun looking at uniforms as means of creating better learning environments and violence reduction while others see mandatory uniforms as a distinct disregard for a student's first amendment rights as well as having a negative effect on a student's personal development.
Most of society is affected by this issue because they are either students in the public school system, parents of the students or others affiliated with the system. Most student reactions to mandatory school uniforms are negative. Children in general don't like restrictions; being told what to wear is felt as very restricting to lots of students. While parents are divided on the issue, the majority of school system affiliates feel that mandatory uniforms would bring many benefits to public school students.
Those who are fighting to mandate school uniforms have two main arguments. The first states that uniforms will create better learning environments for students. Uniform supporters believe that uniforms will create better learning environments by reducing distractions in the classroom that result from one's appearance and that uniforms will help foster a professional mindset for students. The second argument states that uniforms reduce violence by providing easy identification of intruders on campus and eliminating fights over apparel.
An article from the February 1996 edition of the School Administrator noted that the implication of mandatory uniforms promises to have a drastic positive effect on learning environments, as well as increased safety in schools (23). Administrators in the Long Beach, California public school system that adopted uniforms reported "significant improvements to school climate" (Cohn 22). Improvements since implication of uniforms include, the fact that many schools have reported dramatic decreases in tardiness, number of classes cut, discipline referrals and suspensions. Many administrators recognize commitment to academics as a result of increased attendance in schools that have instituted uniforms. Students do not worry about how they look and are therefore able to concentrate more on their studies rather than social plans.
Better learning environments are associated with increased discipline, and school pride. Uniforms have been thought to foster shared visions of commitment and unity, just as they do for a team sport. Commitment to academics is associated with increased discipline and unity is associated with school pride. Jennifer Coman and Sheryl Lecza, authors of "School Uniforms in Public Schools," argue that "a uniform can give the feeling of belonging that someone might get from team uniforms, cheerleading outfits or school jackets" (3). This sense of belonging is a result of increased feelings of pride and unity fostered by uniforms.
Besides this sentiment of uniformity, by instituting a uniform wearing policy, administrators feel a reduction in the threat of violence, which may be prevalent throughout their districts. Safety is a main concern in the public school system. Officials find it easier to identify those not enrolled by requiring uniforms. Outsiders can clearly be identified when one notices that they are not dressed in the appropriate attire. Cohn, author of "Mandatory School Uniforms," states "Our uniforms also allow easy and immediate identification of outsiders who do not belong on campus" (23).
Usual fights over expensive or "popular" clothing are eliminated when uniforms are mandated. Gang related clothing and colors are a deep concern for parents, students and administrators alike. Melissa Nitsch, author of "Would School Uniforms work at PHS?," admits that, "When everyone looks alike, there is less risk of being caught in gang fights for wearing the wrong color. With uniforms, no one is killed over a pair of Nikes or a Starter jacket" (4).
Though many people agree with mandatory school uniforms, there are still just as many people opposed to them. One arguments opposing uniforms are that they deliberately violate a student's first amendment rights such as blatantly ignoring a student's fundamental right to freedom of expression. Another argument is that in the long run, uniforms stunt a child's personal development. A child's personal development is inhibited by forcing them into conformity and by suppressing peaceful means of expressing emotions.
Loren Siegal of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) spoke with a Long Beach eighth grader, Troy Kinsey who attends a public school in which uniforms are required. Troy opposes uniforms because he feels that "when you express yourself in the school years, that's the best time to do it, because throughout your adult life, you'll be in business attire, and business clothes, so I think you should really be creative when you're young" (Cohn 7). Troy also feels that uniforms create a "sterile environment" that is not conducive to creativity, individuality or allows freedom of expression (Cohn 7).
Aside from violating a student's right to freedom of expression, uniforms stunt a child's personal development. Colman McCarthy, a writer for the Washington Post, argues that a very major and underrated part of a student's education is the development of one's personality (A: 17). Personality is developed through interaction with others and is expressed partly by one's choice of clothing. Siegel, of the ACLU, feels that a goal we should have in this country for public education is encouraging curiosity and individuality among students. Placing younger and older students in uniforms completely defeats this goal.
Uniforms also eliminate a possible mean of expressing emotions in peaceful manners. For example, some exceptionally depressed students may feel more comfortable wearing all black. Clothing as a mean of expressing one's depression will not have the option of being utilized. Therefore, the student's obvious depression may pass unnoticed by counselors and friends. This possibly serious depression, left unnoticed, could be detrimental to the student's mental and emotional health. The emotional and mental problems developed, progress with time, and may be harmful to the student later in life.
It is quite evident that there are many sides to this argument. The basis of arguments in favor of mandatory uniforms revolve around better learning environments and violence reduction. Parties against mandatory uniforms argue that they violate a student's fundamental right to freedom of expression and inhibit a student's personal development. This is not a dispute that will be resolved easily. Uniforms have been around since the beginning of time and will remain a part of society for years to come.
Cohn, Carl. "Mandatory School Uniforms." The School Administrator Feb. 1996: 22- 25.
Coman, Jennifer and Lecza, Sheryl. "School Uniforms in Public Schools." 1 p. On-line. Internet. 7 Nov. 96. Available: http:www.connix.com/~`bhs/bhsol/sting/7-1-gnews05.html
McCarthy, Colman. "Uniforms Aren't the Answer." Washington Post 16 Mar. 1996: A, 17
Nitsch, Melissa. "Would School Uniforms Work at PHS?" Falcon Flyer Oct. 95: 1 p.
On-line. Internet. 7 Nov. 96. Available: http://www.bgsd.wednet.edu/wwwschools/phs/doc/uniforms.html
This paper was prepared in 1997 for a colloquium facilitated by Stephen Wright, instructor for the Advocates for Children program, part of the College Park Scholars community at the University of Maryland, College Park.