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The School Uniform in Public Schools Debate

Dress Codes, School Uniforms

It was in the late 1960’s that school dress codes (and the general belief that a certain type of attire was expected in the “serious” educational setting) began to be eliminated. Before that there was no need to think about school uniforms for public schools. Private schools tended to require uniforms, but they served a purpose within that context. For the most part, anyone who saw a schoolyard full of public-school students saw children and teenagers who were dressed reasonably well.

Girls were required to wear dresses, jumpers, or skirts. Since they wore only dresses, jumpers or skirts they wore shoes that went with dresses, jumpers or skirts. Boys were required to wear dress shirts of any color. Neckties were required, although string ties were an acceptable alternative for which most boys opted. (Today the word, “string”, conjures up a few completely different images, doesn’t it?) Boys’ shirts could be short-sleeved in Spring. Boys of secondary-school age were required to either wear or pullover sweater or jacket to school. Jeans were not allowed. Neither were T-shirts or sweatshirts (except for sports), particularly those with pictures or words on them. Students had gym uniforms (that were generally despised by all girls).

There was always the occasional boy or two in any class who tried showing up in a black T-shirt and black pants, and such boys would be given a lecture in the principle’s office. Once “mini-skirts” showed up on the scene there there were always a few girls who didn’t know the difference between a short skirt and a way-to-short skirt, and rules about a hem needing to touch the floor if the girl kneeled were instituted. The reasonably lenient (and yet detested by the students) dress codes that prohibited “Garrison belts”, super-short skirts, low-necklines, T-shirts on boys, super-long hair on boys, and super-teased hair on girls were said to be “archaic” back in the 60’s, when my generation decided it was time to change the world, though, so many schools eliminated dress codes around that time.

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At first (at least in my suburban school) there wasn’t much difference in post-dress-code attire. The main difference was that boys got to wear their hair down to their shoulders. Over the two decades or so between when I attended school and when my oldest son attended elementary school the general appearance of students had gone substantially downhill. I sent my kindergarten-aged son to our suburban, public, school in a little pullover sweater and corduroy pants, only to be told by my five-year-old that he was the only one who wore sweaters. As I took note of what the other boys were wearing I was horrified to see them in little striped jerseys and jeans that were, in my opinion, fit for the backyard. I tried to modify my son’s clothes in a way that would make him stand out less but still not quite be the “play clothes” level of attire many of his classmates wore.

As my oldest son got older, and as my younger son and his little sister progressed through school, I saw a very clean decline in the appearance of school kids. By the time my daughter graduated high-school in 2003 her father and I were fairly disgusted at some of the clothing that so many of her classmates wore to school. School was clearly no longer thought of as “all business” and as a place where a certain level of attire was required. “Anything goes” is the way students dress today, and that isn’t necessarily a good thing because so many people grow up oblivious to the concept that there is a time and place for certain types of attire. My two grown sons and daughters have grown to be people who dress fashionably and nicely while also knowing when the occasion calls for casual clothing and when it calls for something a little less casual. They didn’t learn that from their post-dress-code school years, though, they learned it from my imposing a certain basic dress code on them when they attend school. I let them make their choices and express their individuality within certain boundaries of what is acceptable for a place like school and what isn’t. Not all parents do that these days, and I’m guessing its become parents today have often grown up without benefit of learning about what’s appropriate and why there’s something to be said for having a certain amount of respect for the school setting when it comes to how students dress.

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People often talk about kids’ not getting to express their individuality when uniforms are required. Some people talk about how uniforms assure that kids with more expensive clothing won’t make kids with less impressive feel bad. Other people bring up the issue of gang colors and preventing them from being worn. My replies to those points is: 1)Kids can express their individuality outside of school, after they graduate, and in the form of whatever stickers they want to put on their book bags and covers, 2) Kids need to learn that there will always be someone who has better clothing and there will always be someone who has less impressive clothing than they have. That’s life, and 3) No school policies should be based on anything that has to do with gangs or gang colors. Gangs are a separate issue that need to be dealt with separately.

Thirty or so years after school dress codes were first eliminated our schools are populated by young people who have no concept of the idea that there is a time and place for certain types of clothing. They are too often oblivious to the idea that dressing with a little self-respect and showing respect for the educational environment are important. The result isn’t just in having kids look like they don’t realize that education deserves a basic level of reverence. The result is that our culture now has thirty-year-olds who show up in court with shorts, bare feet in sandals and their bellies hanging out under their T’s. I live in New England, where Winter coats are still worn in March but where it is not at all unusual to go to the local Burger King or supermarket in March and see way more cleavage, bellies and tattooed arms than ought to be showing up in public in March. Our culture has grown men who sit in restaurants with baseball caps on their heads and grown women who are proud to say they don’t even own a skirt.

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If schools had kept the basic dress codes that were in place before the late 1960’s and early 1970’s there may be no need today to consider uniforms for public-school students. With over thirty years of decline in a basic understanding of, and standard for, what is acceptable in polite society, though, school uniforms may be what are required to try to restore to our kids some sense of dignity, self-respect, respect for education, and awareness of what’s appropriate where.

Its time schools stop letting the “patients run the asylum”, and its time parents back the schools in any efforts to do that. Its time for schools and parents to show a shred of leadership because that’s what today’s kids need more than ever before.