NYC school board considers student uniforms

Thursday, February 12, 1998

A proposal to require all New York City students in public elementary schools to wear uniforms may spark new debate, pitting efforts to improve schools against the free-expression rights of students.

William C. Thompson Jr., president of the New York Board of Education, on Feb. 9 proposed all elementary students in the city’s public schools be required to wear uniforms starting in the fall of 1999. Thompson said he plans to present the policy to the seven-member board for a vote next month.

The policy, if enacted, would replace an existing voluntary policy and require some 550,000 children to wear uniforms to school. But Eduardo Castell, special assistant to the board president, said Thompson’s proposal allows for religious exemptions and an “opt-out” clause, which allows individual schools the option to not require uniforms.

Castell told the First Amendment Center that the type of uniform would be up to individual schools.

While school uniforms aren’t new—they are a hallmark of a private-school education—they have only recently begun appearing in public schools. In 1994, the 83,000-student Long Beach, Calif., school system became the first in the nation to require all of its students to wear uniforms.

School systems in six cities—Birmingham, Ala.; Chicago; Dayton, Ohio; Oakland, Calif.; San Antonio and Long Beach, Calif.—have adopted mandatory uniform policies for all of their students, according to a recent survey from the Council of Great City Schools, an organization of the nation’s 49 largest school districts.

Of the 48 school districts responding to the survey, 35 have voluntary uniform polices for elementary students while 28 had similar policies for secondary students.

“As you can see, an overwhelming majority of our member school districts have mandatory or voluntary uniform policies,” said Sharon Lewis, the council’s director of research. “It is something that is becoming quite prevalent in our cities.

“I think one reason is to keep the attention in the schools on academics and not on student dress, as well as to cut down on some of the violence,” Lewis told the FAC. “Certainly it puts focus on where it should be … on academics. They don’t have to worry about what Mary is wearing today.”

While Lewis said research hasn’t shown a direct link between uniforms and improved school conditions, she said Long Beach school officials reported some correlation. In four years of requiring uniforms, school officials said they’ve seen a significant drop in school crime and a rise in attendance.

A uniform policy “isn’t the magic bullet,” said Janet Bass, spokeswoman for the American Federation of Teachers, which represents educators in New York City as well as across the nation. “There are other tools in the arsenal.”

Bass told the FAC that school districts also need parental involvement and a tough, consistently enforced code of conduct so children understand the consequences of their actions.

But such policies raise numerous concerns ranging from the financial burden parents may face in buying uniforms to constitutional matters.

To avoid free-expression concerns, many school districts adopt voluntary policies instead, Bass said. But she said parents, educators and students must remember that the child who wants to learn has a right to be educated in an environment free of disruptions.

Civil libertarians said mandatory uniform policies tend to excessively restrict student rights. “A student’s choice of dress is an expressive activity,” said Norman Siegel, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, in a New York Times interview, “and, consequently, it’s protected by the First Amendment.

But Richard Fossey and Todd DeMitchell, authors of an essay “Litigating School Dress Codes,” both told the FAC that while the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District that children don’t shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse door, subsequent courts haven’t been so clear.

“Not all of the cases are all in harmony,” said Fossey, an associate professor of education at Louisiana State University. “Some judges find constitutional problems; some don’t. It’s hard to spot a trend.”

Nearly all of the student-expression cases since Tinker focused on haircuts, T-shirts and jeans, Fossey and DeMitchell said. Last year, a U.S. district court in Arizona ruled in Phoenix Elementary District No. 1 v. Green that a public academy’s uniform policy did not violate student-expression rights.

DeMitchell said the court determined that while the students had to wear white-collared shirts and navy pants or skirts, they were allowed to wear jewelry, buttons and other accessories.

DeMitchell, an associate professor at the University of New Hampshire, said a potential problem with a mandatory policy is that it may eliminate all chances for students to express themselves. As a former principal and superintendent, he told the FAC he wouldn’t support a mandatory uniform policy but might back a dress code.

But Fossey said he doesn’t see constitutional problems with mandatory uniform policies if the community embraces them. He said his own visits to poor New Orleans schools with uniform policies revealed communities that believe such policies saved their schools.

“If they think it’s helping, then I think we should let them do it,” he said.