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A Fashion Statement With Real Meaning : Long Beach: Dress code at public schools breeds cautious optimism. Fights and suspensions are way down.

August 19, 1995|J. MICHAEL KENNEDY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When it came to school uniforms, Long Beach Principal Shawn Ashley was once a serious doubter. Now he wears one.

There he was on the school playground during lunch, decked out in the white shirt and black pants worn by all the boys at Long Beach's Franklin Middle School.

For those who still question the value of uniforms in schools, Ashley has one answer: look at the numbers, look at the reduction of crime on this city's public school campuses.

The number of school fights is down by half. School suspensions are down one-third. Every measurable criminal activity is down in public schools throughout the city, from the richest neighborhoods to the poorest.

Almost a year ago, the Long Beach Unified School District made national headlines when it became the first public school district in the country to make uniforms mandatory for its elementary and middle school students.

Ashley, then the principal of Washington Middle School, thought the new rule was little more than window dressing in a school system beset by high crime and serious money problems. A lot of other school administrators agreed.

"I thought it was trying to solve a complex social issue with a real simplistic answer," he said while sitting in his new office at Franklin, located in the heart of one of Long Beach's tougher neighborhoods.

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But Ashley and others have done an about-face because of the downturn in school violence since uniforms were introduced in September. There were 1,135 reported fights in the 1993-94 school year, but only 554 in the last academic year.

No one is saying uniforms are the only reason violence is down.

Others factors cited include an increased emphasis on parent involvement, decentralization of schools and an effort to improve the learning environment.

Supt. Carl Cohn is reticent about declaring total victory until more time has passed and a major study can be conducted about the link between uniforms and a decrease in school crime. "I want to be fairly cautious in making sure it isn't a one-year blip on the screen," Cohn said.

Still, Cohn said he is delighted with the first-year results. And Cohn, other school officials and teachers are convinced that uniforms have played a major role in the turnaround.

"I think it's great news for all of us who have advocated school uniforms as a way of building community," said Theodore R. Mitchell, dean of the UCLA School of Education.

The view from the street is much the same, with Long Beach police saying the uniforms seem to have an effect on the way students act.

"We don't seem to have a problem with the kids who are in uniform," said Sgt. William Brough of the Long Beach juvenile division. "I think it's been a great success."

Small wonder, then, that the Long Beach district is being inundated with hundreds of calls from across the country, with school officials, parents and the media checking on the program's progress.

One reason they want to learn about Long Beach is because it is not some rich suburban district, but one with all the big-city problems: drugs, crime, racial tension, an ethnic smorgasbord and students for whom learning often takes a back seat to simple survival.

"It's probably the greatest interest we've seen in any [education] story in the last 20 years," said school district spokesman Dick Van Der Laan.

Interest in uniforms in public schools is spreading nationwide. In the wake of Long Beach's move, Gov. Pete Wilson last August signed a bill authorizing California school districts to implement a dress code. Oakland, which is another large district composed of the very wealthy and very poor, will begin a mandatory uniform program in the fall.

Various states, including New York, Virginia, Georgia, Louisiana and Maryland, have passed laws authorizing school districts to order their students into uniform.

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A number of school districts throughout Los Angeles County also are turning to uniforms, including the Monrovia, West Covina, Lynwood and Rowland school districts, all of which will have programs when school starts in September. More than one-third of the 600-plus schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District will require uniforms this fall.

In Long Beach, 10 public schools had required uniforms before they were mandated in all elementary and middle schools. The results were part of the reason the school board expanded the requirement to all 56 elementary and 14 middle schools in the district.

Whittier Elementary, which began requiring uniforms five years ago, was the first. It now boasts the lowest absentee rate in the district, a circumstance that officials said would not be expected, given the poverty and transient nature of the neighborhood. School officials attribute better attendance, in part, to the introduction of uniforms.

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