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School Uniforms Save Money--Even Lives


I'm starting a campaign to encourage the wearing of uniforms in public schools.

No, I'm not an authoritarian crank. I re-read Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience" essay from time to time just for fun, and I regularly encourage my students to step to the beat of their own drummer.

But there are stronger and more important ways to assert identity and uniqueness than through clothing.

The courts have ruled that requiring public school students to wear uniforms violates equal-access provisions of the law and is therefore unconstitutional. Public schools cannot demand that students buy uniforms in order to attend.

But schools are permitted to encourage their students to choose to wear uniforms, and in some cases I think they should. Uniforms would help solve some of the problems that distract students from learning, and would help to re-establish academics as the priority at school.

In schools attended by gang members, what students wear can be a matter of life and death. These students show their gang affiliation by the colors or emblems they wear; this makes them highly visible targets for violent attacks by members of rival gangs.

While school administrators try hard to promote the concept that the school campus is neutral turf, it often doesn't work. Gang fights and shootings can erupt on the athletic field, in the lunch area, or just about anywhere else on campus, and it's all the more likely when gang members are allowed to show their colors.

But if students are wearing simple uniforms of neutral colors, gang members are harder to spot, and one source of provocation is removed.

This is why some public schools are embracing uniforms. The trend is hottest in urban schools in the East, but several Los Angeles-area schools are also urging their students to try uniforms on for size.

At Vaughn Street Elementary School in San Fernando, part of the Los Angeles Unified School District, about 20% of the students wear uniforms. "This was a decision from the parents and the school, because of protection in the neighborhood as far as kids not wearing gang-related clothing," said Aixa Carbonell, a Vaughn administrator.

The main criticism of uniforms mentioned by my colleagues and students was cost, that it's an extra expense for parents. In fact, uniforms can save parents some money.

Consider this: For about $60, you can buy one pair of popular jeans, or a complete school uniform. And for what you would spend on a pair of trendy sneakers ($100-$120), you could buy two uniforms, enough for a school year.

The cost factor makes many parents at Miles Avenue Elementary School, in Huntington Park, especially happy, said Assistant Principal Leonard Deutsch. "From year to year, you'd save a small fortune," he said, "because you don't have to worry about a (new wardrobe) every year."

Of course, kids still need clothes for after-school and weekend activities, but not as many.

Other critics of uniforms in public schools say that students' freedom of expression and individualism would suffer.

I disagree. Relying solely on clothes as a means of expression is sadly superficial. Individuality should be shown through one's ideas, behavior, and personality.

A colleague who wore uniforms throughout her schooling agreed. "(Uniforms) allow students to focus on other things," said Katie Kranz, an English teacher. "People would then base (impressions) on how nice you are, what kind of person you are, rather than what you wear."

Self-esteem is a big determinant in how happy and successful students are and, like it or not, appearances have a lot to do with that.

Many of my poorer students have expressed shame and deep feelings of inferiority because they don't have the silk shirts or $300 cowboy boots that are standard gear for many of their wealthier classmates.

And while economic differences are a fact of life that children and teen-agers must eventually face, we could at least arm them for that by increasing their self-esteem now.

Surprisingly, many of my Malibu students agree that reducing the focus on financial inequities is a good reason to have uniforms. "Everyone would be equal when they come to school," said Dana Blakemore, 16. "There's a lot of hostility between (rich and poor students) and that's what causes a lot of distress at this school."

Classroom discipline would also be helped if students wore uniforms. Any experienced teacher or parent knows that kids generally behave according to the image they project, so they tend to act better when they're dressed better.

And while some students would still misbehave while wearing haute couture, I still think that most would take school more seriously if they were dressed more seriously.

Mary Yarber teaches English and journalism at Santa Monica High School. Her education column appears weekly in The Times.

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