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A Primer on Fashion : Gang-Related Clothing May Be Out, Even if It's In


LONG BEACH AREA — Senior John Rocha dressed to impress for the start of school: new $38 Levi's wider than the Panama Canal and a brilliant white T-shirt--a bargain at $8--large enough to clothe a Toyota.

The look was baggy, hip, just right.

And it barely got him past the front door of John H. Glenn High School in Norwalk.

As fast as you can say "dress code," Rocha's outfit and $250 worth of his new school wardrobe became obsolete.

He ran squarely into the school's ban of "overly" baggy clothes that are associated with some gangs.

Every school system in the area, from Long Beach to Montebello, forbids clothes and virtually anything else linked to gangs. And the list of banned items is ever increasing.

Officials said the prohibitions are needed to keep the peace between competing gang factions at high schools and middle schools. And non-gang members become targets for gang members when they adopt gang fashions, officials say.

Schools used to justify dress codes on the grounds of modesty and good taste. Now, officials say these regulations save lives.

"We would be opposed to anything that is disruptive or subjects someone to potential danger," said Dick Van Der Laan, spokesman for Long Beach Unified. "Students still have considerable latitude in what fashions they choose."

Some rules, however, clearly violate the rights of students, said Raleigh Levine, a constitutional scholar with the American Civil Liberties Union. But school districts are pushing forward with their policies just the same.

The Little Lake City School District, which serves Santa Fe Springs and Norwalk, banned gang-related attire earlier this year. In the Whittier area, the Lowell Joint School District mandated similar regulations this fall.

The Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District expanded its dress code to deal with gangs a year ago, and administrators at Glenn High School said they are enforcing the rule as never before.

The school mailed a copy of the dress code to each family. On the second day of school, the code was explained in a series of student assemblies.

"I knew it was not OK," Rocha said of his wardrobe. "I was testing them."

He was hardly alone. Another teen-ager wore pants with a 62-inch waistline. Like other boys, he was sent home to change. One youth had to return home twice the same day.

On opening day, security aide Carlos Salazar stopped five students with watch chains--banned because they can be used as weapons. He was also on the lookout for initialed belt buckles. One local gang wears buckles with the initial "N"; another uses the initial "C."

Those belt buckles have caused fights in past years, officials said.

Some suspected gang members got around one rule by wearing banned Raiders logo T-shirts under other clothes. They then allowed the arms and tail of the banned shirts to hang exposed below their outer garments, creating a new "gang" fashion. Staff members have now banned that look as well.

Many students support the dress code and said they feel safer because of it, but Rocha isn't convinced.

"I don't think there should be one, because the way a person dresses doesn't make a person what he is," he said. "We don't tell the teachers what to wear."

Nonetheless, Rocha now complies with the dress code in Norwalk. In other places, he'd still be persona non grata . His gold earrings would be banned in Lynwood schools. His unbuttoned shirt would ground him in Long Beach.

The rules vary significantly from district to district, often because officials have varying standards and confront different gangs.

Most districts ban some kind of shoes--sometimes because of gang associations, sometimes because the shoes don't allow students to participate in athletics. In general, leave thongs, sandals and open-toed shoes at home. And don't forget to wear some kind of hose or socks.

In Long Beach schools, don't wear shoes that could damage floors.

Bare flesh is discouraged. Some schools tolerate shorts; almost none go for cut-offs. So cover those legs and shoulders, button your shirts, and forget dresses and blouses cut low in the front or back.

And don't think you're in the clear if you stow a forbidden item to wear later. Compton Unified bans even the possession of a baseball cap, dark glasses, gloves, rags, hats and plastic hands.

Lynwood Unified will allow caps only when it rains, so consult a meteorologist. Lynwood also bans "excessive fads such as boys wearing earrings, handkerchiefs hanging out of pocket or gloves."

The Whittier Union High School District won't allow gang names or logos on notebooks, folders, book covers and assignments.

Wallets are OK almost everywhere if out of sight and not attached to chains.

School administrators everywhere believe in underwear. They just don't want to see it. "Undergarments shall be worn and must not be visible at any time," reads the Downey Unified dress code.

In Norwalk and La Mirada, sleeveless undershirts must be worn under clothes. In Long Beach, you can wear them over clothes.

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