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School Will Require Student Uniforms : Education: Elementary in Pacoima will be the first LAUSD campus to move from a voluntary to a mandatory policy.

May 21, 1995|MARTHA L. WILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Vaughn Street Elementary School in Pacoima, the first in the Los Angeles Unified School District to adopt a voluntary uniform policy, will become the first to make it mandatory--as dismayed parents and officials have concluded that the optional plan simply does not work.

The reason is fairly obvious: Kids think uniforms "look squarey," as Vaughn Street fifth-grader David Macias put it.

Other adjectives used by classmates who have similarly eschewed the gray-and-burgundy outfits included "yucky" and "ugly." Uniformed youngsters, on the other hand, preferred words like "pretty," "comfortable" and "neat."

But that difference of opinion will soon be moot because Vaughn Street parents, who continue to fear that gang-style attire could prompt acts of violence, have voted overwhelmingly to require all youngsters to wear uniforms. Fewer than 40% of Vaughn's 1,150 pupils now wear them, school officials said.

Parents were able to set the new policy, which will take effect in July, because the campus is among the district's experimental charter schools where parents and officials collaborate in setting their own agenda. (In fact, the school has renamed itself the Vaughn Next Century Learning Center.)

Last year, similar concerns about gang violence prompted the Long Beach Unified School District to become the first urban public school system in the nation to adopt a mandatory uniform policy. Other schools are expected to follow suit as more and more frustrated administrators and parents concede that, when given a choice, children will wear anything but a uniform.

"If 100% of the kids are not wearing uniforms, then the whole idea quickly becomes uncool," said Rochelle Neal, principal of La Mesa Junior High School in the Santa Clarita Valley.

Uniforms were made mandatory when La Mesa opened in September, thus making it the first school in the north county to require uniforms. The policy has also made the school a popular choice in a district with open enrollment. With an expected capacity enrollment of 1,020 in the fall, La Mesa already has a waiting list of 130 seventh- and eighth-graders whose parents apparently approve of the uniform requirement.

"I firmly believe voluntary programs do not work," Neal said. "The kids that you want most to wear a uniform--the gangbangers, the ones with not a lot of parental control at home and who cause the most trouble at school--will not wear them."

The alternatives at La Mesa are simple: If you won't wear the school's black-and-teal colors, you can go to one of three other junior highs in the William S. Hart Union High School District--although two of those also are considering mandatory uniform rules.

Once the hallmark of exclusive private and parochial schools, uniforms have become a national trend at public schools in the '90s, largely as an antidote to the spread of gangs, whose baggy pants and adopted colors are often viewed as invitations to violence.

More than 200 schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District, or nearly a third of the total, now have voluntary uniform policies. Those campuses include about 30 in the central and eastern areas of the Valley.

Until now, most public schools across the nation have adopted voluntary standards, largely to offset legal challenges that questioned the constitutionality of mandated rules. But school officials say they have to promote uniforms constantly by conducting contests and urging parents to participate. El Dorado Elementary School in Sylmar, for instance, recently put on a uniform fashion show during a parent open house.

The California Education Code, as amended last year, permits individual schools and districts to mandate uniforms as long as parents are allowed to either transfer their children to a school where uniforms are not required or sign a paper exempting their children from the rule. In the Long Beach district, fewer than 1% of parents have exercised the waiver, and many of them have later changed their minds, officials said.

The law previously allowed schools to ban students from wearing gang-related colors and accessories like bandannas, caps and jackets with the logos of such sports teams as the Los Angeles Raiders.

But many parents and administrators felt that even more control over student attire was needed because of growing competition among elementary-age children and preteens to wear expensive brand-name clothing and shoes.

Parents complained that the cost of clothes had taken over as the criterion of a child's acceptance or rejection at school. Around the country, there were highly publicized incidents of children being killed by other children for their clothing, including at least three such slayings in Baltimore.

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