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Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles Times -- 8/19/95

Long Beach: Dress code at public schools breeds cautious optimism. Fights and suspensions are way down.

By J. Michael Kennedy
Times Staff Writer

When it came to school uniforms, Long Beach Principal Shawn Ashley was once a serious doubter. Now he wears one.

There he was on the school playground during lunch, decked out in the white shirt and black pants worn by all the boys at Long Beach's Franklin Middle School

For those who still question the value of uniforms in schools, Ashley has one answer look at the numbers look at the reduction of crime on this city's public school campuses.

The number of school fights is down by half. School suspensions are down one-third. Every measurable criminal activity is down in public schools throughout the city, from the richest neighborhoods to the poorest.

Almost a year ago, the Long Beach Unified School District made national headlines when it became the first public school district in the country to make uniforms mandatory for its elementary and middle school students.

Ashley, then the principal of Washington Middle School, thought the new rule was little more than window dressing in a school system beset by high crime and serious money problems. A lot of other school administrators agreed.

"I thought it was trying to solve a complex social issue with a real simplistic answer," he said while sitting in his new office at Franklin, located in the heart of one of Long Beach's tougher neighborhoods

But Ashley and others have done an about-face because of the downturn in school violence since uniforms were introduced in September. There were 1,135 reported fights in the 1993-94 school year but only 554 in the last academic year.

No one is saying uniforms are the only reason violence is down.

Other factors cited include an increased emphasis on parent involvement, decentralization of schools and an effort to improve the learning environment.

Supt. Carl Cohn is reticent about declaring total victory until more time has passed and a major study can be conducted about the link between uniforms and a decrease in school crime. "I want to be fairly cautious in making sure it isn't a one-year blip on the screen," Cohn said.

Still, Cohn said he is delighted with the first-year results. And Cohn, other school officials and teachers are convinced that uniforms have played a major role in the turnaround.

"I think it's great news for all of us who have advocated school uniforms as a way of building community," said Theodore R. Mitchell, dean of the UCLA School of Education.

The view from the street is much the same, with Long Beach police saying the uniforms seem to have an effect on the way students act.

"We don't seem to have a problem with the kids who are in uniform," said Sgt. William Brough of the Long Beach juvenile division.

The district has been inundated with hundreds of calls from across the country, with school officials, parents and the media checking on the program's progress.

One reason they want to learn about Long Beach is because it is not some rich suburban district, but one with all the big-city problems drugs, crime, racial tension, an ethnic smorgasbord and students for whom learning often takes back seat to simple survival.

"It's probably the greatest interest we've seen in any education story in the last 20 years," said school district spokesman Dick Van Der Laan.

Interest in uniforms in public schools is spreading nationwide. In the wake of Long Beach's move, Gov. Pete Wilson last August signed a bill authorizing California school districts to implement a dress code. Oakland, which is another large district composed of the very wealthy and very poor, will begin a mandatory uniform program in the fall.

Various states, including New York, Virginia, Georgia, Louisiana and Maryland, have passed laws authorizing school districts to order their students into uniform.

A number of school districts throughout Los Angeles County also are turning to uniforms, including the Monrovia, West Covina, Lynwood and Rowland school districts, all of which will have programs when school starts in September. More than one-third of the 600-plus schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District will require uniforms this fall.

In Long Beach, 10 public schools had required uniforms before they were mandated in all elementary and middle schools. The results were-part of the reason the school board expanded the requirement to all 56 elementary and 14 middle schools in the district.

Whittier Elementary, which began requiring uniforms five years ago, was the first. It now boasts the lowest absentee rate in the district, a circumstance that officials said would not be expected, given the poverty and transient nature of the neighborhood. School officials attribute better attendance, in Part, to the introduction of uniforms.

Another school, Newcomb, immediately began seeing higher test scores. Already considered one of the better schools in the Long Beach system, it became even more in demand after the switch to uniforms, with parents camping out overnight to get their children on the admission list.

About the same time, Lincoln Elementary parents banded together and said they wanted uniforms because they felt it might increase the safety for children who inadvertently wear gang colors to school.

"It's better security for the kids," said Jauna Gomez, whose daughter, Janet, is a third-grader at Lincoln. "A lot of kids were coming in the school and we didn't know if they were from this school or not."

These days, there is no mistaking the students of Lincoln or any other elementary or middle school, with their blue jumpers and shorts, combined with white shirts and blouses. When a gang member or gang wanna-be comes on campus, everyone knows it immediately and teachers are quicker to respond in challenging a stranger.

"They don't mix us up with other kids who don't wear uniforms," Janet said.

Some of the schools each of allow some deviation. A few allow shirts with school emblems or even blue jeans. But most stick to the basics: polo shirts and shorts.

Cohn gave much of the credit to parents in all parts of the city for the initial success. Because all of the elementary and middle schools were involved, it ensured that all of the city's divers communities became involved in the uniform effort, he said.

"When a school system sets a higher standard, parents actually overwhelmingly respond in a very positive way," Cohn said. "We never could have done this without their cooperation.

The response among students is fairly predictable. The older they get, the less they like the requirement.

That was what made Cohn and the board of education stop short of requiring uniforms for high school students, fearing that it would be an invitation to open defiance and civil liberties lawsuits --something that has thus far been avoided.

A typical student response comes from Fabe Garcia, a Franklin eighth-grader "We hate uniforms."

But a more telling answer comes from seventh-grader Dieon Murphy "You don't get shot at."

Safety factors aside, teachers and parents say there is a social value to uniforms that makes them worthwhile. Teachers emphasize how children respond much better in the classroom when they are all dressed the same.

Sherry Nieto, a second-grade teacher at Lincoln elementary, said the uniforms have gone a long way toward leveling the playing field of how students dress, creating more equality between the haves and have-nots.

"When the kids were wearing their own clothes, there wouldn't be any physical violence, but aggravation shown by children who did not have the Nike sneakers or the Guess? clothing.

"There was a feeling by those who did not have those things that they were not as good," she said. "It was an esteem thing. Now, of course, that is gone. The children don't even focus on shoes now."

In an effort to make sure that the uniform program is a success, and that no one lacks for proper clothing, a number of schools and service organizations have chipped in to ensure that the poorest of students have the proper clothing.

At a number of middle schools last year, eighth-graders were told they could wear anything they wanted during the last week of class as long as they donated their uniforms to the school. The response was overwhelming and 'hundreds of used uniforms were collected for students who will need them this year.

Other schools, through their Parent Teacher Assn., have instituted programs where students may check out uniforms for those times When a parent has not had time to clean them.

Another program, sponsored by the Assistance League of Long Beach, gives away uniforms to needy children. The package includes two complete uniforms, shoes, socks, a jacket, a backpack and hygiene kit. Jan Boswell, a volunteer with the organization, said 1,450 children were clothed last year through the program.

Joe Palumbo was co-principal at Newcomb when uniforms were instituted there two years ago. He is not one to hype clothing as a panacea, and knows that "just slapping clothes on kids won't improve a school."

But he believes that uniforms can be instrumental in changing the tenor of a school if they are accompanied by other reforms to improve the learning process. Mostly, he said, uniforms put students in the proper frame of mind for why they are in school.