ERIC Identifier: ED415570
Publication Date: 1998-01-00
Author: Isaacson, Lynne
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Educational Management Eugene OR.
Student Dress Policies. ERIC Digest, Number 117.
In recent years, schools across the country have experienced violence, gang
activity, and thefts of clothing and accessories. Many school boards, mindful of
their responsibility to provide safe school environments for students, have
implemented policies specifying dress codes or the wearing of uniforms.
As many as 25 percent of the nation's public elementary, middle, and junior
high schools were expected to implement dress-related policies during the
1997-98 school year, according to the CALIFORNIA SCHOOL NEWS (March 31, 1997).
Ten states allow school districts to mandate school uniforms.
Educators and the public are divided over the value of implementing
school-uniform policies in the public schools. This Digest examines arguments
for and against school-uniform policies, identifies legal considerations, and
offers guidelines for implementing policies on student dress.
WHAT ARE THE ARGUMENTS IN FAVOR OF SCHOOL UNIFORMS?
the chief benefits of school uniforms, say proponents, is that they make schools
safer. Uniforms are said to reduce gang influence, minimize violence by reducing
some sources of conflict, and help to identify trespassers. Parents benefit
because they are no longer pressured to buy the latest fashions, and they spend
less on their children's clothing.
Uniforms are also claimed to help erase cultural and economic differences
among students, set a tone for serious study, facilitate school pride, and
improve attendance (Cohn 1996, Loesch 1995, Paliokos and others 1996).
Proponents also say uniforms enhance students' self-concepts, classroom
behavior, and academic performance (Caruso 1996).
WHAT ARE THE ARGUMENTS IN OPPOSITION?
that school-uniform policies infringe upon students' First Amendment rights to
freedom of expression; interfere with students' natural tendency to experiment
with their identities; are tools of administrative power and social control;
offer a piecemeal approach to issues of racial and economic injustice; and may
discriminate against students from minority backgrounds (Caruso 1996, Cohn and
Some believe uniforms will not erase social class lines, because policies do
not apply to other items that can be used to convey status, such as jewelry,
backpacks, and bikes. Uniforms may not be feasible in high schools, because
older students are more independent. Others argue that it is wrong to make
children's right to a public-school education contingent upon compliance with a
uniform policy (Caruso, Cohn and Siegal).
WHAT ARE THE OUTCOMES TO DATE?
Most preliminary findings
come from the Long Beach (California) Unified School District, the first U.S.
public school system to require uniforms for elementary and middle school
students. Before implementing its policy in September 1994, the school district
required approval from two-thirds of the parents (Caruso 1996).
Long Beach Superintendent Carl A. Cohn reported that during the first year
suspensions decreased by 32 percent, school crime by 36 percent, fighting by 51
percent, and vandalism by 18 percent (Cohn). At Whittier Elementary, attendance
rates have risen each year since the policy went into effect, reaching a high of
96 percent (Caruso).
Schools in Chicago, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, New York, and
Virginia have made similar claims (Caruso).
Parents have responded favorably to uniform policies. In Long Beach, only 500
parents petitioned to opt their children out of the mandate. In a national
marketing survey conducted by Lands End, a Wisconsin-based clothing catalog
company, respondents agreed that a uniform policy "could help reduce problems
associated with dress," and most felt the price was "about the same or less than
the cost of a regular school wardrobe" (CALIFORNIA SCHOOL NEWS). California
requires school districts to subsidize the cost of uniforms for low-income
A 1996 survey of 306 middle school students in the Charleston, South
Carolina, County School District found that school uniforms affected student
perceptions of school climate. Students in a middle school with a uniform policy
had a significantly higher perception of their school's climate than did
students in a school without a uniform policy (Murray 1997).
Student reactions range from delight at not having to decide what to wear to
displeasure at looking like a "nerd." It is important, therefore, to include
students as well as parents in the uniform-selection process.
WHAT LEGAL ISSUES ARE INVOLVED?
To date, most legal
challenges to dress-code policies have been based on either (1) claims that the
school has infringed on the student's First Amendment right to free expression
or (2) claims under the Fourteenth Amendment that the school has violated the
student's liberty to control his or her personal appearance (Paliokos and others
FIRST AMENDMENT CLAIMS. The clash between students' rights of free expression
and the responsibility of public-school authorities to provide a safe learning
environment is the central issue in the debate over dress-code policy.
In developing a ban on gang-like attire, whether through implementing a
dress-code or a school-uniform policy, administrators should ask: (1) Is there a
direct link between the targeted attire and disruption of the school
environment? and (2) Is the prohibition specific enough to target the
threatening attire without infringing on students' rights? (Lane and others
"Any dress restriction that infringes on a student's First Amendment rights
must be justified by a showing that the student's attire materially disrupts
school operations, infringes on the rights of others at the school, or otherwise
interferes with any basic educational mission of the school" (Grantham 1994).
To defend its action if challenged in court, a state must carefully define
its interest when authorizing school districts to implement mandatory uniform
policies. Policy-makers must be able to document that a problem exists (Paliokos
LIBERTY CLAIMS. Most challenges claiming a violation of the liberty interest
have dealt with restrictions on hair length. Courts have been evenly split on
whether a liberty interest exists. "Most courts that uphold the restrictions
give the policy a presumption of constitutionality and place the burden on the
defendant to show it is not rationally related to a legitimate school
interest.... Those courts that strike down such regulations have found that
schools impose unnecessary norms on students" (Paliokos and others).
WHAT ARE SOME GUIDELINES FOR IMPLEMENTING POLICIES?
Lane and others offer the following advice to policy-makers:Before
implementing a dress-code or school-uniform policy, beable to justify the action
by demonstrating the link between akind of dress and disruptive behavior;
consult with a schoolattorney; and make sure the policy is enforceable and does
notdiscriminate against racial/ethnic minorities.
In regard to uniforms, Paliokos and others recommend that policy-makers
address three key questions: Are the requirements legally defensible? Do they
actually restore order? Are less restrictive dress codes a better alternative?
For example, policy-makers can consider five alternatives ranging from least to
1. Do not institute a dress code.
2. Institute a dress code that outlines general goals, and let principals and
local school officials formulate and implement policy at the grass-roots level.
3. Institute an itemized dress code that will be applied throughout the
4. Authorize a voluntary uniform policy.
5. Authorize a mandatory uniform policy with or without a clearly defined
opt-out provision. Then policy-makers should decide whether to let schools
choose their own uniforms and whether to offer financial help to low-income
families (Paliokos and others).
Whichever policy is chosen, successful implementation depends on developing
positive perceptions among students and parents, making uniforms available and
inexpensive, implementing dress-code/uniform policies in conjunction with other
educational change strategies, allowing for some diversity in uniform
components, involving parents and students in choice of uniforms and formulation
of policy, recognizing cultural influences, and enforcing the rules evenly and
Superintendent Cohn credits his district's success to a stable school board,
supportive parents and community, resources to defend the policy, capable site
administrators, and community philanthropic resources.
"California Leads Nation in Public School Uniform
Use." CALIFORNIA SCHOOL NEWS (March 31, 1997): 4.
Caruso, Peter. "Individuality vs. Conformity: The Issue Behind School
Uniforms." NASSP BULLETIN 8, 581 (September 1996): 83-88. EJ 532 294.
Cohn, Carl A. "Mandatory School Uniforms." THE SCHOOL ADMINISTRATOR 53, 2
(February 1996): 22-25. EJ 519 738.
Cohn, Carl A., and Loren Siegal. "Should Students Wear Uniforms?" LEARNING
25, 2 (September/October 1996): 38-39.
Grantham, Kimberly. "Restricting Student Dress in Public Schools." SCHOOL LAW
BULLETIN 25, 1 (Winter 1994): 1-10. EJ 483 331.
Kuhn, Mary Julia. "Student Dress Codes in the Public Schools: Multiple
Perspectives in the Courts and Schools on the Same Issues." JOURNAL OF LAW AND
EDUCATION 25, 1 (Winter 1996): 83-106. EJ 527 561.
Lane, Kenneth E.; Stanley L. Schwartz; Michael D. Richardson; and Dennis W.
VanBerum. "You Aren't What You Wear." THE AMERICAN SCHOOL BOARD JOURNAL 181, 3
(March 1994): 64-65. EJ 481 325.
Loesch, Paul C. "A School Uniform Program That Works." PRINCIPAL 74, 4 (March
1995): 28, 30. EJ 502 869.
Murray, Richard K. "The Impact of School Uniforms on School Climate." NASSP
BULLETIN 81,593 (December 1997):106-12.
Paliokas, Kathleen L.; Mary Hatwood Futrell; and Ray C. Rist. "Trying
Uniforms On for Size." THE AMERICAN SCHOOL BOARD JOURNAL 183, 5 (May 1996):
32-35. EJ 524 358.