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Custom-made fit for school

Dress codes, student uniforms back in style

By Amy Cox

Michigan student Timothy Gies' suspension for wearing anti-war clothing later was overturned.



Back to School

(CNN) -- The newest school fashion trend is not ripped from the pages of the latest magazine -- it comes from the principal's handbook as a growing number of school districts are adopting more stringent dress codes and implementing school uniform policies.

"I thought that the uniforms were pretty nice, but it took me a month to get used to it," says Elizabeth Nichols, a fifth-grader at Davis Magnet Elementary School in Jackson, Mississippi.

After a pilot program last year, the school's district put the uniform policy in effect in all elementary and middle schools for 2005-2006. Students must sport navy or tan pants and navy or white shirts.

Elizabeth's mom, Lisa, says she likes that the uniforms are economical and that they keep her three children "nice and neat."

"My son has gotten so used to tucking in his shirt, he tends to tuck in his pajamas," Lisa Nichols says.

Elizabeth's school district is one of many in the nation turning to stricter dress codes or school uniforms. In 1997, 3 percent of all public schools required school uniforms; three years later, the level topped 12 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Education. The department also found that 47 percent of public schools enforced a strict dress code. The federal government takes a new look at the issue in 2006.

Since 2000, the number of schools adopting these policies has continued to rise, said Nathan L. Essex, former dean of the University of Memphis' College of Education. Schools in 37 states now have some sort of rules for uniforms, he says.

Essex, president of Southwest Tennessee Community College and a former schoolteacher, says he believes safety concerns spurred the new policies and expects the trend to grow more widespread.

"Basically, due to the violence [schools] encountered during the late 1990s into the early 2000s -- such as [shootings] in Conyers, Georgia; Pearl, Mississippi; and Paducah, Kentucky -- I think those things really stimulated a lot of school officials to look at campus safety," Essex says.

Trend began in early '90s

Proponents say dress codes and school uniforms increase school safety by eliminating gang-related clothing and helping aid in the recognition of nonstudents on campus. Other potential benefits cited include better student behavior, more resistance to peer pressure and improved emphasis on academics.

California's Long Beach Unified School District was the first public school to bring uniforms to the classroom, beginning in 1994. Today, kindergartners through eighth-graders in the 93,000-student district wear mostly white polo-type shirts with khaki or navy blue pants or skirts, depending on the school. About 2 percent of the students "opt out" of the uniforms by parental consent.

"It was part of a package of reforms to raise standards not only in dress but also in behavior and achievement," says Chris Eftychiou, spokesman for the school district. "The idea was to reduce discipline problems and distractions and improve overall student behavior."

For the third-largest school district in the state, results were immediately noticeable, Eftychiou says.

"We started to see better behavior shortly after the uniforms became mandatory. We saw fewer fights, and the kids were just getting along better," he says. "The learning environment is much better, and the students are less polarized."

Infringing on free speech?

On the other side of the school yard, critics dispute the benefits and argue dress codes and school uniforms restrict students' free speech.

Justin Taylor, a 10th-grader at Alabama's Fayette County High School, which doesn't have a strict dress code, says any move toward uniforms would take choices out of his hands.

"I wouldn't like it. I just wouldn't like wearing the same things over and over again every day," Justin says. "I would rather wear what I wanted."

Opponents also contend that dress codes do not erase social class distinctions because the policies usually don't apply to jewelry, backpacks, bikes and other accessories, Essex says.

He also points out no long-term studies have examined dress codes' effect on crime, attendance or academic achievement. For now, he says, anecdotal evidence exists of the policy's positive effects.

Debate intensifies

Some schools' move to a more stringent dress code can spark national attention and threats of lawsuits.

In 2004, Timothy Gies, a senior at Bay City Central High School in Michigan, was suspended several times for wearing shirts and sweat shirts with anarchy symbols, peace signs, upside-down American flags and an anti-war quote from Albert Einstein.

He took his case to the the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, and his school discipline was overturned after the ACLU intervened.

"My view and the ACLU view on suppression of political speech in school is that the public schools have a pointed responsibility to prepare students to think critically and participate in our democracy," says Michael Steinberg, legal director of the Michigan ACLU.

"ACLU opposes dress codes -- we believe students have a right of free expression, a part of which is expressing their individuality through the clothes that they wear," Steinberg says. "And parents can control the clothes their children wear, but it should not be a matter that the state dictates."

But Essex says there has to be a balance.

"We understand school officials are very concerned with school safety, but that has to be balanced with reasonableness, and that's what the courts expect from us -- to be reasonable in terms of what we expect in students," he says.

For Elizabeth, the Mississippi fifth-grader, white, tan and blue uniforms are a familiar and welcome sight at the start of this school year.

"Blue is my favorite color so I might be kind of attached to them," she says.

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