Scan the grounds of Ventura High School at lunchtime and you'll see boys wearing caps bearing a variety of logos, everything from sports teams to the local pizza hangout.
Across town at Buena High School, you won't spot a cap on the head of a single student.
Caps are banned at Buena High, as they are at a growing number of schools throughout the county. Law enforcement officials and school administrators say the caps, depending on their logo, can signify gang affiliation.
To discourage gang activity, most schools prohibit students from wearing clothing or other paraphernalia bearing gang symbols. But many schools, such as Buena High School, have taken the prohibition one step further and banned all caps, whether they reflect gang affiliation or not.
School administrators say the cap ban has worked smoothly, and any initial resistance from students has faded. But students at Ventura High School, where the possibility of a ban has been raised, overwhelmingly object.
"This isn't a private school--we should be able to wear what we want," said Sean Traylor, a sophomore sporting a generic cap. "It's not the hat that makes the person."
In recent years, school and police officials have scrambled to keep up with always-changing street gang fashion. Presently, sports clothing, especially Los Angeles Raiders and Kings caps and jackets are in vogue, they say.
But it's not that simple. Some kids wear the black Raiders and Kings attire simply because they like the teams.
"Can't I like hockey?" asked Richard Herrera, a Ventura High School sophomore wearing a Kings cap. "Look around you," he said, gazing at the campus lunchtime scene and the many boys wearing caps. "Do you think they're part of a gang?"
In the Ventura Unified School District, four middle schools have banned caps. But Mar Vista Continuation School, as well as Ventura High, allow them.
The district has no uniform dress code specifically prohibiting gang attire, and board member Barbara Myers thinks that it's time for one. She wants it to go beyond caps to include any gang-related symbols. The board will address the issue at its meeting Tuesday.
Myers believes that the presence of such attire intimidates some students, although a student survey at Ventura High shows the vast majority aren't.
"This won't eliminate the problem," she said. "But it would cause those students to feel less uncomfortable on campus."
Law enforcement officials applaud schools in the county for taking a hard stance on caps and other so-called gang fashion.
Sgt. Carl Hardy, supervisor of the Ventura Police Department's gang unit, said kids who are gang members wear the identifying clothing to give them visibility.
"The message is: 'We're here, it's our territory,' " he said.
Over the years, school dress codes have tightened or loosened, depending on social trends. During the late 1960s and the '70s, skirts became shorter and boys' hair became longer. At some Ventura County schools, girls with short skirts were asked to kneel on the floor and if their skirt didn't touch the floor, they were sent home to change.
In the early 1970s, when students across the country protested rigid dress codes, many school districts loosened their restrictions. Now most have broad, general codes that speak to cleanliness, safety and taste. Shorts are allowed; bare midriffs are not.
When clothing advertising alcohol or drugs became hot fashion items a few years ago, most schools in the county banned them. Now they are trying to stay on top of gang fashion.
Items of clothing that school officials say they worry about are sports-related clothing, bandannas, shorts that extend below the knee, bib overalls worn a certain way, gang graffiti on shoes and pants that sag well below the waist. Schools deal with the problem differently.
"We don't allow bandannas," said Dave Jackson, principal of Royal High School in Simi Valley. "We have tons of baseball caps."
But a month ago at Hillside Junior High School in Simi Valley, caps were banned.
In the Oxnard Union High School District, four of the five high schools have banned caps. School officials are working on a districtwide policy to deal with gang clothing and paraphernalia.
Caps were banned at Rio Mesa High School in September, and Principal Eric Ortega thinks that it has cut down on gang activity.
"We have a much better atmosphere on campus," he said.
The Oxnard Elementary School District tightened its dress code last year to prohibit students from wearing gang-related clothing. Santa Paula Union High School officials are doing the same and the new dress code is likely to have a cap ban, according to Dax Bryson, assistant principal.
The Santa Paula Elementary School District's middle school, Isbell School, prohibits caps, drawing on shoes and pants cut off at the knees. Not only that, the district's dress code doesn't allow halter or tank tops and shorts shorter than mid-thigh.
Students found to be wearing offensive clothing are asked to change into one of the T-shirts provided by the school for such occasions, said Bonnie Bruington, assistant superintendent for the district.
"We have some awful T-shirts," she said. "They only wear them once."
OTHER GOINGS-ON FOR KIDS:
Kids will make arts and crafts items for mom from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. today at O.K. Club for kids at the Oaks Mall in Thousand Oaks. On May 16, Jim Gamble will entertain with his puppets.