Less than four weeks before classes begin, Long Beach school officials are scrambling to get out the word that all elementary and middle-school students must wear uniforms this year.
The district's new mandatory uniform policy will affect almost 60,000 students from kindergarten through eighth grade, and officials have been deluged with calls from parents clamoring for information about what types of clothes will be permitted.
Each of the 14 middle schools and 56 elementary schools has chosen its own uniform, generally white combined with black, dark blue, gray or green.
Students are expected to show up for the first day of school Sept. 14 wearing uniforms, although officials plan to allow a one-month grace period before enforcing the policy.
The district spelled out the uniform policy in two mailings to parents during the summer, but it still has received hundreds of inquiries, spokesman Dick Van Der Laan said. The district is drawing criticism for failing to inform parents that they have an option to seek an exemption to the uniform requirement.
The Long Beach school board approved the policy in January, becoming the first public school system in the nation to require students districtwide to wear uniforms. School board members said they hope that the uniform requirement will help curb gang-related violence and boost academic performance.
Later, the board retreated to a less restrictive policy after opponents mounted challenges on the legal and legislative fronts. Parents filed a federal lawsuit contending, among other things, that mandatory uniforms are unconstitutional because they violate students' rights to free expression. Although the parents lost their legal attempt to block the new policy, they were more successful on the legislative front.
A bill that initially would have given school districts permission to require uniforms later was amended to allow exemptions for families opposed to uniforms. The bill has been sent to Gov. Pete Wilson, who has until Tuesday to sign it. Supporters say they are confident that Wilson will sign.
Last month, the Long Beach school board approved a procedure that allows parents to opt out of the uniform requirement.
Parents who do not want their children to wear uniforms must request an exemption in writing and must meet with school officials to explain their objections.
Some parents complained that the district has made the exemption process too difficult. Others said they object to having to meet with officials.
"It's unacceptable to us that parents should have to come in to basically listen to a lecture," said Eugene Kinsey, a Long Beach attorney and parent who filed the lawsuit against the district. "They've made it rough to opt out."
Parent Dennis Rockway, a lawyer and a member of the school committee that helped develop the uniform policy, said the district has withheld information that could help parents understand their choices.
The two district flyers describing the program did not explain that parents could request an exemption, he said. In fact, one of the flyers described the dress code as mandatory.
"They take such pride in being the first school district in the country to implement the mandatory uniform policy," Rockway said. "They're trying to deceive people into compliance."
Parent Randy Prak, who bought outfits for his three children at Willard Elementary School, said he believed that uniforms were to be mandatory. "The board requires students to put the uniforms on," Prak said. "It's not my decision."
Prak added, however, that he would have bought the uniforms even if he had been aware of the option to request exemptions.
School officials deny they are withholding information. Anyone who inquires about obtaining an exemption receives a brief explanation and is referred to the child's school, Van Der Laan said.
Ray Rivera, principal at Lincoln Elementary School, said he has not told parents how to avoid the requirement.
"The district needs to give us a little bit more direction in terms of what we're supposed to do or not do" with parents who don't want their children to participate, Rivera said. "We basically say we've got a period here of a month or so before it's mandatory."
After Oct. 14, students without exemptions will face discipline, such as picking up trash or serving detention, if they don't wear uniforms. It will be up to school principals to decide the form of punishment, officials said.
Officials point out that uniforms have been well received in 20 Long Beach schools that have had voluntary programs, some of them as long as five years.
At some schools, 90% to 100% of the students regularly chose to wear uniforms to class. Some teachers offer incentives, such as Popsicles and extra recess time, to encourage students to participate, officials said.
"We anticipate all of our children being in uniforms on Sept. 14," said Barbara Richardson, principal at Burnett Elementary, which has had a voluntary uniform code in place since March.