Many school districts have enacted dress codes in the belief that they will help increase student self-esteem, enhance school unity, increase attendance and reduce dropout rates, and reduce violence–in particular, violence related to gang activity. The types of dress codes established by schools vary widely, running the gamut from simple prohibitions on specific logos or inappropriate slogans to the more extreme uniform policy. Many dress codes or uniform policies were enacted after President Bill Clinton encouraged them in his 1996 State of the Union speech. Approximately 14% of public schools required students to wear uniforms in the 2005-2006 academic year. Although parents often support these policies, research does not necessarily show that they achieve the desired result. Court rulings on this issue are also mixed, with courts siding with educators when there is a safety or sexual component involved, and siding with students who are expressing legitimate political views.
Jane E. Workman and Beth Winfrey-Freeburg of Southern Illinois University found that gang-related headwear was the number one target of dress codes and uniform requirements, cited in 89% of the more than 80 school policies they reviewed in 2006. Because gangs can be highly creative in adopting signs and colors, some dress codes are minutely detailed. For instance, some school districts prohibit “do rags” or handkerchiefs, as they have been used for gangs to identify members. Likewise, some schools have prohibited the wearing of anything red or blue, as they are typical gang colors. Complying with these rules can be difficult for both students and parents, who have to be aware of the specific requirements. Such policies are also problematic for the educators who must enforce them.
A different problem is related to sexually provocative clothing. One notable trend in school policies is banning of clothing that shows the “three B’s”: breasts, bellies, or bottoms. The attire of female students in particular is often heavily influenced by popular culture, which repeatedly shows images of barely clad women.
Parents tend to favor school dress codes. The most frequent argument they make in support of these policies is that such rules make it easier to get students ready for school and out the door. Parents also believe that dress codes help reduce other social issues in schools, as it makes it more difficult to detect which students have more money than others and thus lessens peer pressure. Some teachers believe that such policies help create an academic climate more conducive to learning, as students are less likely to be distracted by the inappropriate clothing of others.
All dress code policies must meet the standard set in the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the 1969 case Tinker v. Des Moines, which allows students free expression as long as it does not create a “material or substantial disruption.” Of course, it can be very difficult to determine precisely what constitutes a material or substantial disruption. Judges usually side with administrators if a student’s clothing sends a violent or discriminatory message or if it advocates drug use. In contrast, if the clothing has a clear political message, the decision usually goes the other way. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) often argues on behalf of students in these cases.
Long Beach Unified School District reported seeing a marked reduction in school disciplinary problems and violence after it instituted a mandatory school-uniform policy. Critics contend that other changes occurring in the school district could have been responsible for the reduction in violence and disciplinary problems noted in the California district. Other districts have not experienced this type of reduction, instead seeing an increase in students suspended due to dress code violations.
A study of a nationally representative sample of eighth graders found that students who attended schools with uniform requirements did not differ from other students in attendance, attitudes toward school, or behavior problems. The biggest problem is that few of the studies used control groups and appropriate independent measures to ensure that the dress code or uniform policy was the cause of any change they noticed.
- Hudson, D. (2010, January 11). Clothing, dress codes and uniforms. First Amendment Center. Retrieved April 26, 2010, from http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org/clothing-dress-codes-uniforms
- Johnson, A. (2008, October 18). Students, parents bare claws over dress codes. MSNBC. Retrieved April 26, 2010, from http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/26875980/
- Peterson, R. (2008). Fact sheet #6: Student uniforms. Consortium to Prevent School Violence. Retrieved from http://flaglerlive.com/wp-content/uploads/CPSV-Fact-Sheet-6-Student-Uniforms.pdf
- Raby, R. (2010). “Tank tops are OK but I don’t want to see her thong”: Girls’ engagements with secondary school dress codes. Youth and Society, 41, 333-356. Zirkel, P. (2000). Dress codes. NASSP Bulletin, 84, 78-82.