Dr. Val FarmerDr.Val
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

School Uniforms, Yea Or Nay?

September 23, 1996

The case for school uniforms

  • Behavior follows appearance. Students behave better and take school more seriously when they are dressed up in white dress shirts, ties, dark pants or skirts. The message is that school is serious and not play time. School uniform policies are more effective when coupled with rigorous academics, no-nonsense discipline rules and parental involvement.

Imagine this: after one year school crime is down 36 percent, fighting is down 51 percent, weapon possession is down 50 percent, assault and battery is down 34 percent, vandalism is down 18 percent, school suspensions are down 33 percent. These are the behavior statistics of the Long Beach Unified School District after school uniforms became mandatory for 58,000 middle school students during the 1994-95 school year.

Oakland, Dade County, Florida schools and one third of Los Angeles elementary schools have opted to require uniforms. Many schools in Baltimore have voluntary uniform policies. They have raised donations from individuals and organizations to buy uniforms and other supplies for students who can't afford them.

California State University is conducting a study to see if there is a direct link between school uniforms, more orderly schools and higher achievement.

  • Reduces violence. Urban schools like uniforms because they promote student safety. Gang colors attract attention and invite violence. With uniforms, outsiders can be easily identified. Certain clothing symbolizes lifestyles relating to drugs, violence and disrespect for authority. Many peer groups take pride in their anti-educational attitudes.
  • Clothes competition. School uniforms reduce the costly, destructive competition among students to wear the nicest clothes. Students from low income families do not have to wear worn, ragged or cut-rate clothing next to name brand clothing. Some students delay or do not purchase needed books and supplies while spending their money on fashionable wardrobes. Competition over appearance invites taunts, fights and theft.
  • Distractions in the classroom. For some teenagers, school has become a major arena to display their latest fashions. Outrageous clothing worn by classmates is a distraction in the classroom. The circus side show of appearance seems more important than what is happening in the center ring of classroom instruction.

The case against school uniforms

A quick fix. According to Ruth Rubenstein, a sociologist with the Fashion Institute of Technology and author of the book, "Dress Codes, Meaning and Messages in American Culture," feels that the situation in Long Beach was so bad that any type of intervention would have meant improvement. Just trying something new and giving teens public attention and importance may have addressed the neglect and lack of importance they were feeling. School uniforms may be a good short-term fix that doesn't address the deeper issues of teen problems.

  • Search for identity. According to Rubenstein, teenagers immerse themselves in culture through their selection of music and culture. They also experiment with identity and persona by joining cliques in school.

Each clique has its identifying music, clothing and ideas. As teens choose a particular clique or change to another clique, they are experimenting with choosing a lifestyle - who they want to associate with, what they want out of life and how they see themselves. Teens try on images to see how well they fit.

  • Teens and work. Teenagers often work so they can afford the name brands and identity symbols fashionable with a particular group. Parents often don't understand the importance of the name brand and will only go part way on expensive purchases. Teens feel they need to work and to pay their own way in life. This is a good introduction to life in our culture.
  • Socialization of females. Rubenstein notes that teen-age girls can give the illusion of being rich and having a large wardrobe by exchanging clothes with friends and siblings. Learning to share is a part of the socialization process for females. It is an important part of female resiliency and learning lifetime coping skills.
  • Learning to beat the system. When some teens are told not to do something, that is precisely what they want to do. Parochial schools with school uniforms have found that some students will go out of their way to have displays that show they belong to a certain group - like where you put your comb or buttoning clothes a certain way. An unintended consequence of school uniforms may be that students learn to cheat or beat the system to have their clique identity symbols.

Attempts to eliminate gang colors and bandannas run into the same problem. The gang members will wear something in a certain way to identify their affiliation -something they all do alike despite the imposed conformity. Teens who wear uniforms will wear the forbidden clothing on weekends. They go "wild" with outrageous styles and public displays.

  • Uniforms and cultural. Wearing uniforms is counter-cultural in American society. We have strong cultural values toward individualism, creativity and innovation. Clothing choice is one way that teens use their imagination. Wearing uniforms puts a damper on important values. European society is more amenable to school uniforms because of their greater comfort with conformity to group norms.

So what do you think about school uniforms, yea or nay?