Magazine article Insight on the News

Kids Choose Dress Blues?

Magazine article Insight on the News

Kids Choose Dress Blues?

Article excerpt

President Clinton is pro-uniform, but public schools have had problems enforcing a dress code.

Issac Delorio, a 12-year-old Oakland, Calif., public-school student, looks through the racks of plain navy-blue slacks at E.J. Apparel in the city's Eastmont Mall with something akin to bemused scorn. The classic trousers bear little resemblance to the baggy jeans that droop around his narrow hips. The plain white shirt that rounds out the outfit Delorio will be required to wear to school in September admittedly lacks the visual punch of his brightly colored striped T-shirt. But then, say school administrators, that's the point.

"Would I wear these if I did not have to?" he asks incredulously. "You got to be kidding. This is some kind of Mr. Rodgers' neighborhood thing."

"He'll wear them, and he'll like them," affirms his mother: "I certainly do."

For children and parents across the country, the back-to-school shopping trip is a ritual that often is as ridden with anxiety as the Scholastic Assessment Tests and as expensive as the senior prom. The pressure to have the coolest shoes, hippest jeans and phattest jackets has been known to drive more than one adolescent to beg, borrow or steal -- even kill. But this year as millions of parents ready themselves to see Dick and Jane run back to class, a new factor has entered into the academic fashion equation -- school uniforms.

Once the province of private and parochial academies, uniforms have become the latest tool in the struggle to keep students' minds on their studies instead of on expensive running shoes. Following the lead of California, which last year adopted legislation paving the way for mandatory school uniforms, states across the country are looking to enact similar legislation.

"School uniforms are an idea whose time has come," Massachusetts Gov. William Weld told a gathering of students and faculty at the Robert L. Ford Elementary School in Lynn. "Whether students are in first grade or eighth grade, they are all in school for the same reason -- to learn. And too often clothes distract kids from this goal."

But even as the idea has been lauded by both Republicans and Democrats as a way to impose a sense of order in chaotic classrooms, the movement itself has been anything but uniform.

School districts have treaded lightly around the issue of dress codes ever since the Supreme Court decided in 1969 that the right to individual dress is protected under the First Amendment. Even as school districts attempt to adopt uniform policies, some parents -- occasionally backed by the American Civil Liberties Union -- are challenging the notion with lawsuits. Nevertheless, the courts increasingly are finding in favor of dress codes, especially if schools can demonstrate that school uniforms improve the classroom climate and reduce incidents of violence.

In a celebrated case in Phoenix, for example, two students sued the school district, claiming their right to free expression was impeded by the dress code at their school. Despite the backing of the ACLU, Superior Court Judge Michael D. Jones found that the school was not required to give students the option of foregoing uniforms.

"It is not for this court to second-guess the decision of the school board as to whether a parental opt-out policy is more reasonable that the mandatory-uniform policy," wrote Jones in his decision. …

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