School uniforms address discipline, learning issues

Friday, March 27, 1998

Increasing numbers of public schools are adopting dress codes or requiring students to wear uniforms in an effort to restore discipline and enhance the educational environment. Some school officials insist the measures are necessary to curb rising juvenile crime, particularly gang violence.

Others, like the American Civil Liberties Union, warn that mandatory uniform and restrictive dress code policies infringe on students' free-expression rights. Student clothing communicates and often constitutes symbolic speech protected by the First Amendment, they argue.

Uniform proponents cite the Long Beach, Calif., schools when speaking of the beneficial effects of uniforms. Incidents of school violence dropped dramatically after the school district adopted a mandatory uniform policy for its 60,000 elementary and middle school students.

Hundreds of school districts nationwide have followed suit. Last week
the New York City board of education voted unanimously to recommend uniforms for its elementary school students. Last year, the San Antonio school board voted to require student uniforms.

Even President Clinton has gone on record several times to support uniforms, stating in a recent radio address: “If it means that teen-agers will stop killing each other over designer jackets, then our public schools should be able to require their students to wear uniforms.”

After the president spoke out for uniforms, many school districts across the country started to adopt them.

Kevin O'Shea, publisher of First Amendment Rights in Education, said that “uniforms have become the most popular form of dress codes.”

Educators claim dress codes help teachers focus students on learning by preventing distractions. Richard Fossey, associate dean for the college of education at Louisiana State University, supports dress codes and uniforms. He said: “I believe uniform policies and school dress codes are constitutional. Our schools have pretty serious problems, and educators need to ensure discipline and a good learning environment.”

Others believe uniforms are not the solution. Loren Siegel, director of the public education department of the ACLU, has written that “the call for school uniforms is not constructive because it is a Band-Aid solution to a set of serious problems that defy easy answers. There is something profoundly cynical about our political leaders promoting uniforms in the face of crumbling school buildings, overcrowded classrooms and dwindling education funds.”

Legal issues

The ACLU has suggested two major elements for uniform policies: (1) that they have an opt-out provision, and (2) there is financial aid for those families who cannot afford uniforms.

There are also free-speech concerns. Students often communicate messages by their choice of garb. For this reason, O'Shea says, “There are serious First Amendment problems with a mandatory uniform policy or with a mandatory restrictive dress code.

“Uniforms rule out the possibility of students wearing clothing with messages on them,” he says. They also “forbid students from making cultural statements with their clothing, like the wearing of baggy pants.”

Because of this, most schools are adopting voluntary uniform policies, O'Shea says. For example, the New York City board of education's policy will be a voluntary policy.

“The First Amendment issues become more prominent if you have a mandatory policy,” O'Shea says.

Several students have filed lawsuits challenging mandatory school-dress policies. One of the most prominent of these–Phoenix Elementary School District No. 1 v. Green–arose out of a uniform policy adopted at Phoenix Preparatory Academy, a public middle school.

After the policy went into effect, several students wore T-shirts bearing political or religious messages. The students claimed the T-shirts and their political and religious messages were protected speech under the U.S. Supreme Court case of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District.

In Tinker, the high court ruled that school officials violated the First Amendment rights of students by adopting a policy prohibiting the black armbands which several students wore to express their opposition to the Vietnam War. The Supreme Court established the so-called Tinker standard, which provides that student expression is constitutionally protected as long as it does not create a substantial disruption or material interference with the educational process or invade the rights of others.

However, the Arizona court of appeals in the Phoenix case rejected the students' claims and refused to analyze the case under the Tinker standard. Instead, the court ruled that “the evidence shows the school district's dress code is not intended to restrict speech, but is a content-neutral regulation of student dress that the trial court found furthers reasonable policies and goals of the academy.”

The Arizona court further emphasized that “school officials have great latitude to regulate activities in a manner 'reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical [educational] concerns.'” According to the court, the dress code policy regulates the “method, not the message.”

Professor Fossey sees another problem with many of the dress code challenges. “Many of these cases are simply contrived. They are so far removed from the Tinker case and the profound concern about the Vietnam War. I wore black armbands. That resonates with me. But many of these cases simply trivialize the First Amendment.”

Others believe the lawsuits are not trivial. Kary Love, an attorney who currently represents a teen suspended for wearing T-shirts bearing the name of the rock bands Korn and Tool, said: “Just because a case is contrived doesn't mean it isn't important. Sometimes contrived cases are important. I seem to remember people sitting in buses and sitting at lunch counters. Those contrived cases led to important constitutional rights.”