NYC school board votes for uniforms in elementary schools

Thursday, March 19, 1998

NEW YORK (AP) — The New York Civil Liberties Union has promised lawsuits if any of the city’s half-million elementary school students are punished for not complying with a new recommendation for school uniforms.

On March 18, the seven-member Board of Education for the nation’s largest school system voted unanimously to recommend uniforms for elementary school students. High schools were not affected.

Norman Siegel, the executive director of the NYCLU, said he opposes the uniform plan and will attempt to speak about it at several schools. He said that 20 families from three boroughs have already approached him about fighting the recommendation. “If any student is coerced or punished” for not wearing a uniform, it would trigger lawsuit, Siegel promised.

After the vote at about 7:30 p.m. at the board’s Brooklyn headquarters, board member Ninfa Segarra said that the “policy will allow students to focus on their studies and not worry about an incident based on their clothing.”

But fellow board member Luis O. Reyes said he will opt for an exemption for his son, who attends a public elementary school. Reyes said he supports the clause allowing parents to elect not to have their children wear uniforms.

The policy will cover 670 schools, allowing each to decide the style and color of the uniform.

There is no uniform prototype in place but board president William C. Thompson Jr. said that students and parents would help design the uniforms. He also said if parents opted for uniforms, they would be able to clothe each of their children for the entire school year at a cost of between $100 and $120.

Of the 229 public schools that already use uniforms voluntarily, the most popular choices are navy blue pants and skirts and white shirt and blouses, The New York Times reported in today’s editions.

Impoverished parents would receive financial assistance from their local district offices to purchase the outfits, the newspaper said.

The board’s vote “does not force schools to be in compliance. But we expect there will be substantial compliance across the board,” Thompson said.

The proposal has drawn strong reactions. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani backs the idea, and he controls the seven-member school board.

But parent Ted Mejia of Staten Island said Wednesday: “It’s one more thing we’re being asked to relinquish to a system that has not had a great history in administering some of its goals.”

For years, uniforms were mostly found in parochial schools, where children wore pleated skirts or navy pants, white shirts and ties. In recent years, public school systems in several cities around the country have moved to institute uniforms – but nothing on the scale of New York City’s program.

The board says about 70,000 students already participate in an optional uniform program.

The mandatory provision affects all pupils from kindergarten to fifth grade. Eventually, it could be expanded to all ages–about a million students.

Parents and kids are split on the rule, which takes effect in September 1999.

“I like it,” said Alicia Drygulski outside of Manhattan’s Public School 59, where she was picking up her third-grader. “There’ll be no competition. It’ll take the attention from the clothes they wear.”

Her daughter, Jennie, agrees. “I think it’s a good idea because you wouldn’t have to look at your clothes” every day to decide what to wear, she said.

But Tammy Spleid believes it infringes on her son’s choice: “I don’t think they should be dictated to as to what they should wear.”

Her son, Jonathan Love, 9, said there was a debate at the start of this school year in P.S. 59, and “everybody said ‘No.’ It’s like freedom of speech. Kids should be able to choose their own style.”

Mejia, a former public school teacher and the father of three elementary school children, said the board’s imposition of a dress code strips parents of responsibility.

“This is terribly condescending, to tell the parents you don’t have the skills as a parent to make these (clothing) decisions,” Mejia said.

Parents would be able to opt out of the uniform program, however, if they meet with their principal and agree on an unspecified “alternative school dress code.”

Angela Hernandez, a board spokeswoman, called the options for parents “pretty loose and open.”

In 1994, Long Beach, Calif., became the nation’s first public school system to require uniforms for its 60,000 elementary and middle school students.

Success was immediate in Long Beach, according to school officials. Suspensions fell dramatically and fights were reduced by half. Students again focused on school, administrators say, rather than competing over clothing and athletic shoes.

In San Antonio school board trustees voted last fall to require uniforms for all pupils in the 60,000-student district, making it the largest district in Texas with a uniform policy for all campuses.