Delaware House considers requiring uniforms for public school students

Thursday, June 10, 1999

All public school students in Delaware will be wearing uniforms beginning in 2000 if a measure recently introduced in the state House of Representatives passes.

The bill, introduced on May 27 by state Rep. Wayne Smith, R-Brandywine Hundred, provides that the school boards of each public school district and the board of directors at every charter school “shall establish and enforce a dress code program which must include school uniforms.”

The bill would require school districts to implement the dress code program by Sept. 1, 2000. The bill would also provide that schools must provide uniforms to economically disadvantaged students. Under the measure, a school principal could “excuse a student from temporary or permanent compliance with the school uniform requirement of the school dress code or may allow an adaptation of a uniform to accommodate a special need of a student.”

Smith calls the measures part of common-sense education reform. “At schools which have adopted uniforms we have seen a marked decrease in discipline problems,” Smith said. “The uniforms have had a positive impact on the school learning environment.”

However, others say a state mandate for uniforms would violate students' First Amendment rights.

Gary Klahr, an attorney in Arizona who has handled many cases challenging school uniforms and dress codes, says the measure infringes on students' free-expression rights.

“The idea of regimenting people by uniforms is anti-democratic and authoritarian,” he said. “These types of laws are clearly unconstitutional because they suppress individual student expression.”

Smith acknowledged that the bill would limit student expression, but said that “constitutionally, minors are not emancipated, are subject to parental control, and schools to some degree act” as parents.

Minors are not entitled to the same rights as adults, especially when they are in school, Smith says. “Just as we can search their lockers, we can require them to wear uniforms,” he said.

Klahr also said it would be “outrageous” for the state to usurp local control by mandating uniforms and dress codes for each public school district and for charter schools.

Klahr said the movement toward school uniforms picked up steam in 1996 when President Clinton praised their use in Long Beach, Calif. School officials in Long Beach cited decreased school violence and said the measure created an atmosphere more conducive to learning.

Smith says he did not propose the bill because of President Clinton or the tragedy at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. “This is an issue that has had local support for years,” he said.

The measure has been referred to the House Committee on Education. The committee has not set a hearing.