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BEATTS ME!

Uniform Solution to Crime

April 19, 1998|ANNE BEATTS | Anne Beatts is a writer who lives in Hollywood

I saw a play the other night, called "Full Gallop," with Brenda Vaccaro as Diana Vreeland, the high priestess of fashion given to such off-kilter aphorisms as: "I'm a great believer in vulgarity. We all need a splash of bad taste. No taste is what I'm against."

This got me thinking about school uniforms. Some well-meaning people envision school uniforms as a means of protecting their wearers--and, by extension, the rest of society--from bad taste, whether it's Beavis and Butt-head T-shirts, underwear worn on the outside, or bleaching Batman emblems into your hair, a crime against fashion so heinous that the kid in Texas who committed it was suspended from school on the spot.

These well-meaning people include President Clinton, who actually went out of his way to endorse school uniforms in his 1996 State of the Union address, a safe couple of years before we learned that his personal dress code may often involve keeping his fly unzipped. Since that speech, the U.S. government has been spending our tax dollars to disseminate (no pun intended) the president's message, distributing an official "Manual on School Uniforms" to every school district in the country.

Public schools in cities as diverse as Baltimore, Boston, Cleveland, Chicago, Memphis, Miami, New Orleans, Oakland, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Washington, D.C., and our very own Long Beach all have fallen into line. And now that gorgeous mosaic of cultural diversity, New York City, at the urging of Mayor Rudy "Smile or you're under arrest" Giuliani, is about to turn monochrome. On March 18, the board of education for the nation's largest school system voted unanimously to require that its 500,000 elementary students wear uniforms.

Why do politicians love school uniforms so much? Could it be because uniforms are an unobjectionable cosmetic Band-Aid on the running sore of our nation's troubled educational system? Or am I just being cynical? How unlike me.

In Long Beach, to take an oft-cited example, school administrators claim that, simply by making students wear uniforms, assault and battery charges were reduced by 44%, assault with a deadly weapon is down by 50%, fighting by 41%, and sexual offenses by 74%. To which I can only say, whew! Long Beach without school uniforms must have made "Brooklyn South" look like "Happy Days."

Long Beach schools took other steps to improve student behavior, like increasing the number of teachers on hallway patrol. Which makes me wonder, if you're about to commit assault with a deadly weapon, which is the more serious deterrent: (a) you might get blood on your nice clean uniform; (b) packing a piece ruins the cut of your uniform, or (c) Teach is gonna get you! Just asking.

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In any case, school uniforms have been credited with decreasing violence, vandalism and drug use, promoting school spirit, improving attendance and just about everything a parent or educator could hope for, except increasing American kids' test scores so they might one day surpass those of the hamsters in the kindergarten classrooms of other civilized nations.

Who knew it was so easy? Put schoolkids in uniform, and all their problems'll clear right up like pimples in a Clearasil ad. Why didn't we think of this sooner? In fact, why stop with schoolchildren? What about us adults? Didn't the Chinese try something like that once? And just look at how well-behaved they are. Maybe Mrs. Mao was right. Let's put everybody in uniform!

Of course, for all intents and purposes, it could be argued that some Americans already are in uniform: lawyers, soccer moms, surfers. But it's time to put the teeth in fashion law. In Hollywood, from now on all aspiring model-actress-whatevers will be required to wear skimpy slip dresses and platform sandals even at their day jobs; actor slash waiters will be fined if their jeans aren't also slashed, and all rap artists who ship platinum will be sent directly to jail if not sporting furs, gold chains and Kangol caps.

Across the country, working mothers will be offered the option of either a nice pantsuit or slacks and a sweatshirt with rhinestone kitties on it. Naturally, casual Fridays will be a thing of the past, but the short-sleeved shirts popularized by Dilbert will be acceptable for men in the workplace. On the other hand, no responsible father will allow his son to see him without a tie, for fear of setting a bad example.

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Fashion editors and everyone in New York City who lives below 14th Street will wear only black. Suburbanites will dress strictly in Ralph Lauren, except for Ralph Lauren himself, who can wear anything he likes as long as he isn't photographed in it. As for ethnic groups, like the Italians, they may retain their colorful native costumes, such as big hair and Guido tees, provided their children are offered as hostages to the future and always wear their uniforms.

Space requirements preclude a complete listing (in other words, my editor is telling me to hurry up and get to the point), but once these simple edicts and others like them become law, the crime rate should melt away like a Chevy Chase movie after opening weekend. Dissidents will be rounded up and confined to labor camps. And America will be able to continue the long march forward into true greatness, which, as Mrs. Mao's ex used to say, begins with a single step. School uniforms, my friends, could be that step.

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