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Pupils Must Wear School Uniforms : Education: Board OKs policy for all Long Beach students through eighth grade, beginning next fall.

January 20, 1994|JOHN POPE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Uniforms will be worn by every student in the Long Beach Unified School District through eighth grade beginning next fall, the school board has decided.

The board's unanimous vote Tuesday night drew cheers from a crowd of about 100.

Long Beach and state education officials said they believe the district is the first large public system in the nation to take such action.

Board members said the new policy will increase discipline and safety by eliminating gang-related attire at the district's 56 elementary and 14 middle schools, which have a total of about 57,500 students. Nine district schools had already established policies that strongly encouraged students to wear uniforms.

The board's decision, which also was approved by a non-voting student representative, did not address specifics, such as uniform style, prices or punishment if students do not comply.

Individual schools will choose the colors. The clothing probably will consist of a polo shirt or blouse and contrasting dark pants, shorts or skirts, according to the uniform proposal.

The district already forbids clothing deemed to be related to gangs, such as baggy pants, bandannas and large belt buckles. But school board member Edward M. Eveland, who drafted the proposal, said the current measures do not go far enough to stop intimidation and fear at the district campuses.

In addition, uniforms will encourage discipline and a "businesslike manner," said Eveland, a former teacher in the district.

"I became a teacher because school was a fun place to learn," he said. "But with the situation today, I wouldn't want to be a teacher."

Some board members said they were concerned about the financial impact uniforms will have on poorer families, but said the schools should find a solution, such as arranging clothing donations or possible financial assistance.

Melvin R. Collins, principal of Benjamin Franklin Middle School, which already uses optional uniforms, estimated the cost of three uniforms to be about $65 to $75.

Board member Mary Stanton predicted the uniforms will cost less than "regular school clothes."

During the hearing before the vote, nine people said they supported the proposal and three were opposed.

"It's just a front," said Long Beach resident Robyn Reed, 24. "It won't stop (at uniforms). You start with dress and next, it's going to be how he or she can wear their hair, or what he or she can say. A gang member will be a gang member, and he might just find a different way to express himself."

But Blanche Cook, a former middle school teacher who is now an administrator at Luther Burbank Elementary School, said uniforms, "would make my job a lot easier. I spent 25% of my time telling young men to pull their pants up or they weren't coming into my classroom," she said.

Sharon Diggs-Jackson, president of the Education Council of African-American Parents, said an informal poll of Long Beach families in her organization found overwhelming support for school uniforms. A total of 171 parents and students said they favored the uniforms, while 54 were against them.

Alex Wallace, whose daughter attends Charles Hughes Middle School, said uniforms "do not take into account the individuality of the student."

Board member Karin Polacheck responded to the criticisms, saying, "We do care about the individuality of students. (There is) evidence that this is a tool, a piece of the puzzle, to make our schools safer."

Board member Stanton said uniforms "eliminate the discussion of what to wear in the morning, and all the time spent trying to find the perfect outfit. As a parent, I think uniforms are wonderful."

The lone student board member, Nica Ortega-Operchuck, a senior at Wilson High School, supported the measure but expressed some reservations. "The thought of having to wear a uniform gives me the chills," she said. "If I were in elementary or middle school I would be against it, but I do realize the positive aspects."

Officials acknowledged that the new policy might face a court challenge. Currently, the state Education Code allows schools to ban gang-related clothing, but does not have a policy on mandatory uniforms, said Allan Keown, an attorney with the state Department of Education.

"It gets into the area of student expression, and may well be challenged on constitutional grounds," Keown said.

However, the Long Beach officials said they hope state lawmakers will approve a bill, currently pending in the Senate, that would allow schools to impose dress codes if the health and safety of students are deemed to be in jeopardy.

The Long Beach district first approved optional uniforms in Kettering and Whittier elementary schools in 1989. In 1993, five more elementary schools and two middle schools encouraged students to wear uniforms.

"The strongest comment I get from teachers is that children with uniforms come to school with a different attitude," Whittier Principal Mary Marquez said. "They have the attitude that they are coming to school to work."

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