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Fashion Flares : Back-to-School Shopping Comes With Warning Signals

August 18, 1994|KATHRYN BOLD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As back-to-school sales get underway, many schools are warning parents and students that some of the clothes they're buying now won't make the grade when the school bell rings in September.

The reason these fashions will fail: They've been banned by schools because they've been identified as gang attire.

To keep the gang presence out of the classrooms, Orange County school districts have adopted dress codes that forbid attire like baggy, below-the-knees shorts, combat boots and bandannas.

But these same styles worn by kids to advertise their gang affiliation often cross over into the mainstream. They become all the rage with kids of every description and wind up on the pages of back-to-school ads.

Even clothing that appears harmless, such as baseball caps and collegiate sweat shirts, is prohibited at some schools. Capistrano Unified School District in San Juan Capistrano recently sent parents a notice prohibiting gang-related apparel in classrooms, including "khakis worn with wool-type shirts," overalls, hats and loose, baggy "skater" clothing.

The dress codes can confuse retailers, students and parents.

Pamela Haydon, owner of the Toddling Turtle in Laguna Niguel and mother of a 14-year-old boy, frequently fields questions from parents about what's acceptable in schools. She's known parents who have spent $80 for a pair of combat boots that are trendy enough to be worn by Hollywood celebrities, only to find their kids can't wear them to class. She even visits schools to find out exactly what styles are prohibited.

"If you're in the business you have to be aware," she said. "The trouble is, sometimes it's hard to know" what's acceptable. She recently ordered some knee-level shorts from a popular beachwear line, then decided to pull them from her inventory because she was afraid schools wouldn't allow them.

"I couldn't in good conscience sell them," she said.

Some retailers say schools are overreacting and banning fashions that are not offensive.

Nancy McAtee, owner of Good Times Surf & Sport in Dana Point, said "overactive imaginations" caused school officials to ban baggy clothes.

"It was just a style," she said. "I'm sure there are problems with gangs, but most of the kids (who wore baggy clothes) were normal, everyday kids. They weren't gang members. Remember when we wore big bell-bottoms? It's normal not to like children's clothes."

McAtee wondered why some seemingly innocent fashions have been banned:

"In junior high some kids can't wear baseball caps. That's kind of sad. The kids like to wear them so much. I can see taking the hats off during class, but why ban them altogether?"

The answer from school officials is that caps and other apparel can mistakenly mark a child as belonging to a gang.

"It's about not looking like you're a gang member. A youngster who thinks he or she is in fashion walking down the street in the wrong clothes and in the wrong place can get in serious trouble," said Diane Thomas, spokeswoman for the Santa Ana Unified School District.

"If the mode of dress is detrimental to a child's safety, we need to do something about that."

Two years ago the district tightened up its dress code. Some of the forbidden clothes are obvious gang looks, such as bandannas or T-shirts that advertise drugs or gangs.

But parents might be surprised by some of the other banned clothing: athletic jackets ("some of the gangs use professional team symbols" to advertise their membership, Thomas said); T-shirts and sweat shirts with athletic club or collegiate logos, and any other emblems, initials or insignias not related to the school or school-related activities. Even belt buckles can be suspect if they have initials, another mark of a gang member.

"They use a lot of different ways to show their affiliation," Thomas said.

Enforcing dress codes is a headache for schools because many gang looks have been glamorized by the fashion industry, she said.

"We noticed many big retailers are advertising clothing we would not allow in our schools," Thomas said. "We had a principal last year who clipped out back-to-school ads and said, 'What am I going to do?' "

Thomas contacted a couple of retailers to ask how schools could stop the promotion of gang looks. She's found no solution.

"As long as it's being purchased, stores will buy it," she said.

Even if stores were to comply with school dress codes, they can't stop students from wearing acceptable clothes in an unacceptable way. Something as basic as a pair of overalls can be a problem "if they wear them big with one strap hanging down," Thomas said.

"It's more how a kid wears the item," said Dave Moreland, clothing buyer for Beach Access in South Coast Plaza, Costa Mesa. "One kid could wear a flannel shirt and wear it super baggy with a white T-shirt underneath and be construed as a gang member."

Styles for this school year are "pretty basic" and less oversized, he said, so students will be more in line with school dress codes anyway.

Still, almost as soon as schools issue new dress codes, gang members find other ways to show their colors. After the Santa Ana school district issued its list of prohibited clothes, gang members started identifying themselves by wearing colored shoelaces.

In frustration, many Orange County schools have instituted optional uniforms, Thomas said. Most of the 30 elementary schools in the Santa Ana district have switched to voluntary uniforms.

"We feel we're protecting children by having them in uniforms. That way they're easily noted as belonging to that school," Thomas said. "A fashion statement isn't worth endangering a student's life."

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