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USA Today (08/22/1995)

August 22, 1995

Uniforms, dress codes get top marks from schools

Our View: Morale Is up, crime is down and kids can concentrate on learning instead of self-protection.

Long Beach, Calif., recently got its first report card on a precedent-setting experiment with mandatory uniforms for students at public grammar and middle schools. Grade: an honor-roll performance.

Crime plunged at the system's 56 elementary and 14 middle schools. Fewer weapons and drugs were found. Vandalism dropped. Unexpected benefits: declining absenteeism and improving academic performance among some of the 58,500 students. School spokesman Dick Van Der Laan credits uniforms with "wonderful changes, far exceeding our hopes."

In return, students relinquished some freedom. No more wearing of gang colors. No more shorts or skirts leaving nothing to the imagination. No more oversized shirts or baggy pants hanging below pelvic bones, an ideal get-up for weapons concealment.

Not a bad swap -- a "California casual" uniform of polo shirt and shorts in return for the district's largest reduction in suspensions and school crime in recent history.

That's exactly what Long Beach's Board of Education had in mind when it voted in 1994 to become the nation's first public school district to require uniforms. It's not alone. Across the country, a growing number of public schools are experimenting with both uniforms and dress codes.

The Birdville Independent School District, between Dallas and Fort Worth, sent home last week more than 400 students who wore shorts or skirts shorter than four inches from the top of their kneecaps. In Los Angeles, where 300 gangs operate, almost a third of the 650 elementary and middle schools will ask students to wear uniforms voluntarily this year. Similar experiments are under way in public schools from Chicago to Dade County, Fla.

Violence spawned by the wearing of gang paraphernalia, pricey sneakers and jewelry drove public schools to consider uniforms. Now they are beginning to discover what parochial and private schools have long known. Uniformity in dress can be a terrific equalizer as well as peacemaker.

First and foremost, needy kids no longer have to fear ridicule. If parents can't afford uniforms, most schools offer help. Long Beach, for example, runs a "boutique," funded by private donors, where needy students can get uniforms, shoes, a backpack and toiletries -- at no cost and no shame.

Second, even troublemakers often respond positively. Remove designer label competition and outlaw attempts to out-grunge, and school work gets the attention.

Parents' payoff is equally compelling -- in peace and the pocketbook. No more arguments about the get-up of the day. No more fights about funding the fad du jour.

Uniforms and dress codes don't kill individuality. They can, indeed, foster it. Violence drops.

After the school district in Long Beach, Calif., adopted a school-uniform policy for its 58,500 students in 1994, the number of crimes dropped from the previous year.