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Uniform Acceptance Is Anything But

School: Since it became legal in 1995, requiring students to dress alike has had mixed results.

March 22, 1998|MEGAN GARVEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On the first day of class last fall, Mulholland Middle School sixth-grader Elizabeth Shamlian wore her new school uniform: blue trousers and a white-collared shirt.

Then she went home and told her parents, "I'm never going to wear this again."

She hasn't. And in the sea of adolescents who cross the open courtyards at Mulholland these days, nobody else is in uniform either.

The New York City Board of Education--which runs the only system in the nation larger than the Los Angeles Unified School District--voted last week to require its half-million elementary school students to wear uniforms. New Yorkers hope they will help keep students safe, inspire professionalism and reduce tardiness, disciplinary problems and materialism.

Those goals were once the talk among educators and politicians in California, when the Legislature made it legal in 1995 for public schools to require uniforms.

But three years after coming into fashion, uniforms have not proved to be an elixir for Los Angeles city schools. The initial rush has slowed to a trickle.

In 1995, 314 Los Angeles city schools embraced the idea, more than in any other public school district in the nation. Since then, only 40 more campuses have enlisted. And at many schools where uniforms were once the rage, the look has been pushed to the back of the closet.

Keeping a student body in uniform is hampered by federal court rulings that have abolished mandatory public school policies on free speech grounds. The result in the Los Angeles school district has been a hodgepodge of enforcement, with even the most strict campuses allowing parents to opt out.

Without the support of parents, say educators, uniforms quickly disappear.

Although uniforms are far from dead here, the rhetoric that surrounded their introduction has quieted. Wilson captured the mood of the times when, in 1994, he said, "It used to be that students only had to worry about putting together clothes that matched. Today, the wrong combination can get you killed."

Looking back, Mulholland Principal Alfredo Tarin said, "There was this sense of urgency. The parents brought it all up, and we asked them to be supportive. But now, it is not the overriding issue it was then."

At Loreto Street Elementary in Highland Park, which adopted uniforms in 1995, project coordinator Miguel Mendivil said interest has fallen.

"A couple of years back, we were at 98% participation," said Mendivil. "Now, it is maybe 60% to 80% of the students. The parents aren't pushing it like they were."

Stuart Biegel, a UCLA professor of education and law, said better social and economic conditions are probably why. "Crime has gone down so significantly," he said. "We are three years further away from the disturbances in central L.A. I think uniforms aren't as pressing an issue."

Experts say the benefits of school uniforms remain unproven and largely anecdotal. Bill Modzeleski, director of Safe and Drug Free Schools for the U.S. Department of Education, said proper studies have so far been too difficult and expensive to conduct. Only about 3% of public schools, he said, have uniforms.

Long Beach Unified officials say behavior and punctuality have improved since 1994, when the district became the nation's first public school system to require uniforms. But educators outside the district say it is unclear whether uniforms made the difference.

Myron H. Dembo, a professor of educational psychology at USC, said he has seen no evidence that uniforms alone improve schools.

"Chances are that uniforms in a school are tied to other factors," Dembo said. "The work that parents have to do to get the uniforms forced them to buy into and to support the school. Students could be in bikinis and if the parents are supportive, the school will do better."

There remain Los Angeles city schools where administrators inspect youngsters each morning, sending slackers to the office to change into loaner outfits. While these advocates say uniforms form a shield against trouble, students roll their eyes at the rule.

"I don't think the way you dress is gang-related," said 13-year-old Laura Shebber, an eighth-grader at Fulton Middle School in Van Nuys.

Shebber acknowledges being a chronic dress code violator, who last week was forced to exchange her blue velour top for a white dress shirt with "Fulton" written in ink on the back. "How you carry yourself," she said, "is more important."

Los Angeles Unified set a goal three years ago of having uniforms at all of its 668 schools. So far, 354 city schools are listed as having a uniform policy, most of them elementary schools. Of those, however, the district cannot say how many youngsters now wear uniforms every day.

Many schools with uniform policies say most students don't bother. For example, in the San Fernando Valley's Cluster 6--which serves Reseda, Encino and parts of Van Nuys--none of the 16 schools with uniform policies reports that most of the students participate.

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