School Uniforms and Discipline

June 13, 1995

Will kids learn and behave better if they're wearing neatly pressed slacks and a cardigan instead of baggy jeans and a t-shirt with some crude slogan? Five Anne Arundel County elementaries that want to experiment with school uniforms think it's a possibility worth exploring; so do we.

The Anne Arundel Board of Education has nothing to lose by letting these schools try uniforms on a pilot basis. The program won't cost tax dollars, because parents would pay for the uniforms and a plan is being developed to assist those in financial need. The fear of First Amendment challenges isn't an issue because participation would be voluntary; advocates are betting that if most parents go for the idea, the rest will follow.

At worst, the uniforms won't make any difference and the LTC schools can stop using them. At best, they will create an atmosphere of discipline and order which doesn't exist now.

Throughout the country, most educators complain that a lack of discipline tops their list of major problems. They say that they spend far too much time dealing with behavioral difficulties and a lack of respect for authority; that students have no sense of school as a serious business. It may seem old-fashioned and overly simplistic to think a change of clothes will alter that outlook.

But clothes do make a difference. Dresses and suits and ties convey respect and seriousness, which is why most of us still wear them to church, funerals, weddings and job interviews. Wearing anything you want -- pretty much the rule in public school -- conveys a sense that anything goes. Peek into most classrooms, and you'll find a fashion polyglot; some kids dress nicely, some dress as if they couldn't care less, some wear their rebellion on their sleeves. The overall atmosphere is one of disorder, not discipline.

At the very least, schools ought to enforce the dress codes they already have and stiffen them enough to create a visual environment that discourages acting up and goofing off.

At the expense of individual expression, there are advantages to having everybody wear the same thing. School officials wouldn't have to make subjective decisions about what constitutes a dress code violation. Kids couldn't fight over $100 tennis shoes and might, instead, feel like part of a team. Schools that now use uniforms, including some in Baltimore city and county, say they have changed things for the better. Maybe they would make Anne Arundel schools better, too.

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