Jan 12, 2006

Clothes don’t change the teen
By Samantha Swindler

No matter how you look at it, standardized dress is a punishment. It is taking away a group’s right to choose how they express themselves to the world.Jacksonville Independent School District is now soliciting community opinions on the possibility of implementing standardized dress for all grade levels. Essentially, students will be given a range of appropriate colors and styles of clothing to wear each day — most likely a polo shirt and jeans, khakis, or a skirt of specified length. The theory behind this is that it will 1) help students focus more on school and less on the social strata surrounding them, and 2) it will raise academic performance.
To the second assumption, I would like to be provided with any conclusive research that has been able to link uniforms to an increase in academics, because I haven’t found any.A story in the Dec. 11, 2005, Dallas Morning News quoted a Plano elementary principal as saying that though she liked having optional standardized dress for students, she had no data showing that it actually helped grades. One study I found on the National Association of Elementary School Principals Web site did claim that uniforms helped school safety and academic performance — that study was funded by French Toast, a school uniform manufacturer. In the book, “The School Uniform Movement and What It Tells Us About American Education: A Symbolic Crusade,” by David L. Brunsma, an assistant professor of Sociology at the University of Missouri, years of studies found that nothing suggests standardized dress can be linked to an increase in academic achievement or a decrease in gang activity. An Internet search found other similar books and studies. So, on to more important things — like image.
I’m not opposed to standardized dress for elementary and intermediate schools. These kids’ parents buy their clothes for them, and for the most part, young children have less to say about what they do, where they go, and how they dress. It won’t be quite so demoralizing, and I haven’t seen studies suggesting that standardized dress hurts academic performance.But, anyone who remembers their high school years can remember how important “society” was. As far as I’m concerned, this is fact — no matter what you do to them or how you try to institutionalize them, in high school there will always be nerds, goths, preppies, jocks, rich kids, gangsters, and loners. This is life. After graduation, it’s still there, and I find more and more that people are still as petty, shallow and mean as teenagers can be.But it is sad that people think slapping polo shirts on a bunch of young people will solve gang violence and raise TAKS scores.
For a few brief years, until second grade, I attended a private school in Houston that required students to wear uniforms. Being about 7 years old, I did not know or question the reasoning behind this. But I do remember vividly that it did not change, at all, the dichotomy of the classroom, and the need for children to create a social strata — you can tell who the rich kids are, even when you all wear the same thing. You can tell who has the newest Nikes and whose pants came from a discount store. JISD has a dress code in place. If teachers can’t force kids to tuck in their shirts today, what will be any different about standardized dress? We need to simply enforce the code we have. If students can’t dress themselves appropriately, then take disciplinary action. Standardize the dress at the Compass Center for kids with disciplinary problems. Freedom to dress within the regular dress code is a privilege, yes, but I think it should only be taken away if the student has done something wrong. Why are we punishing all students because a handful are wearing tube tops or pants falling off their behinds? These are things addressed in the current dress code.
I realize the concern for teachers. They spend unnecessary amounts of instructional time trying to discipline students for disruptions. In theory, a new, more strict dress code could eliminate these hassles. But, again, give teachers some teeth to enforce the current rules and establish discipline. This is the way to go — not stripping the rights of all students.I was casually talking about this topic during a church function with a group of local parents, and this response surprised me — “kids don’t have rights.”This may have been half joking, but there was a hint of truth. No rights? The “kids” I’m talking about are able to drive, and some are able to vote and join the military. These kids are old enough to work, old enough to live on their own, and, quite honestly, old enough to drop out of school. They are at an age where they are making mature, big decisions that can affect the rest of their lives. If we can’t trust them to dress themselves properly in the morning, how can we have possibly prepared them for life in the world once they graduate?If we treat teenagers like adults, they will be more likely to act like adults. (Of course, don’t be afraid to punish them like children when they constantly act out and thus interrupt the educational time of other students).
According to a 2000 survey on crime and safety by the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (you can find this at www.ed.gov), 12 percent of all U.S. public schools require students to wear uniforms, and 43 percent said they enforce a “strict” dress code. That includes 12 percent of elementary schools and 4 percent of secondary schools in uniforms. Also interesting, 27 percent of urban schools require uniforms — only two percent of rural schools do the same. The study did not consider the term standardized dress.Even still, Jacksonville High School would certainly be in the minority if it required standardized dress. Honestly, I don’t think it would address the bigger problems in the district. Why is a student allowed to come back to class after mouthing off to a teacher (as several teachers have confided to me anonymously)? If you can’t make a kid pull up his FUBU pants, what makes you think you can make him pull up his khakis? Plus, if you want to address academics, none of this is going to change the fact that some of these kids’ teachers don’t have teaching degrees, and we raise money for field houses before science labs.

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