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Wilson Signs O.C. Legislator's Gang-Attire Bill

September 25, 1993|ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Giving a nudge to anti-gang efforts, Gov. Pete Wilson has signed an Orange County lawmaker's bill that would allow school districts to ban the black baseball hats, bandannas, baggy pants and other attire associated with gangs.

The measure by Assemblywoman Doris Allen (R-Cypress) proclaims that gang-related apparel is "hazardous to the health and safety" of students on California's school campuses and bluntly encourages districts to adopt dress codes.

Shootings and other violence on school campuses often erupt because gang members are readily identified by jackets and other pieces of clothing associated with a particular gang.

While many districts throughout the state--including more than 20 in Orange County--already regulate campus attire to curb gangs, Allen pushed the law to give school administrators staunch legal backing for the dress codes. She also hopes it will prod some recalcitrant educators to take action.

"I do believe we need to give a nudge and say, 'If you need it, here it is,' " Allen said. "But it's only one tool among many needed. It's only one part, not the whole answer."

Wilson, meanwhile, went even further, suggesting in a press release that the measure represents "an aggressive step toward limiting gang violence on campus."

The bill was also given high marks by Orange County educators. "I think this gives some credibility to the districts that are trying to do this," said John F. Dean, Orange County superintendent of schools. "Now, with parents and students they can point to the law."

But critics of the bill said it was unnecessary legislation that could do more harm than good.

"We have no problem with schools providing for the health and safety of their students. But this legislation is extremely vague as to what gang attire means," said Margaret Pena, Sacramento legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union. "We are concerned it (might) be implemented in such a way as to infringe on legitimate free speech."

Pena said the bill doesn't spell out what constitutes gang apparel, suggesting that some overzealous educators might go too far and begin restricting T-shirts carrying a social or political message. She also noted that many school districts already have banned gang attire and questioned the true purpose of the legislation.

"It's got a catchy title and subject matter, but it really doesn't change current law in any meaningful way," Pena said.

Allen, however, argued that a bill is necessary to counteract a 1992 law that prohibits districts from disciplining students for speech in school that is constitutionally protected off campus.

That measure was intended by its Republican author, state Sen. Bill Leonard of Upland, to combat "politically correct" efforts to infringe on the free speech of conservative students. But Allen contends that it has been interpreted by some school officials as forestalling the enforcement of anti-gang dress codes.

In recent years, many Orange County school districts adopted dress codes, ranging from general prohibitions on gang-related attire to long lists of restricted items.

The Capistrano Unified School District, for instance, included Pendleton work shirts and combat boots on its list of banned items. In Santa Ana Unified, all clothing with professional sports team logos or college emblems is off-limits, because local gangs have adopted such gear to identify themselves. At other schools, overalls with straps hanging down, bandannas, chains dangling from wallets and T-shirts advertising alcohol, drugs or cigarettes are not allowed.

Principals and other administrators are typically allowed wide discretion to interpret the codes, and banned items change as local gangs adopt new fads. Penalties, though, are not stiff. Most schools simply send violators home to change clothes.

Times staff writer Jodi Wilgoren in Orange County also contributed to this story.

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