Schools consider uniforms

June 19, 1995|By Carol L. Bowers | Carol L. Bowers,Sun Staff Writer

Solid blue or plaid?

Anne Arundel County is the latest school district to debate whether its students should wear uniforms, and a decision could come as early as Wednesday.

The request came from the Countywide Citizens Advisory Council, which has studied the issue since November.

"The dress code seems to be out of control," said Nancy W. Almgren, vice chairwoman of the advisory council. "One parent brought T-shirts to an advisory council meeting that had phrases on them that you couldn't print in a newspaper."

The council's request on behalf of five schools caught the Anne Arundel school board by surprise. School board members asked the council to provide more information at its meeting Wednesday night.

At the school board's meeting earlier this month, outgoing student board member Terry Gilleland said he objected to the idea of uniforms because they would violate students' rights to free speech and expression.

But the concept of having students wear uniforms has been growing in popularity from Long Beach, Calif., to Portsmouth, Va., over the past five years.

"We had no idea what the impact would be when we tried it, but in every single category of school crime in elementary and middle schools, the numbers dropped," said Richard Van Der Laan, a spokesman for the Long Beach Unified School District. "We don't pretend uniforms are a panacea, but they have had a very positive impact on our schools and students."

There's been little research on the psychological impact of uniforms, but the military has understood their power for centuries.

"What's interesting is how the schools want to use the uniforms. In the military we wear them so we know who's in authority," said Lt. Margaret Lluy, an assistant professor in leadership and law at the U.S. Naval Academy who has a doctorate in psychology. "Schools want uniforms to do away with ringleaders and basing who's going to be the leader based on something like how cool your clothes are."

The Navy manual "Naval Ceremonies, Customs and Traditions" notes that "wearing the uniform creates a lasting impression upon the observer . . . for no one wishes to be associated with an organization typified by slovenly dress."

Lieutenant Lluy said that theory also applies to teachers and may influence the way they treat students, and thus how the students perform in class.

"I was surprised to find in the research that the effect of uniforms is actually on the teachers, according to some of the literature," Lieutenant Lluy said. "There's a lot of research that says teacher expectation has a lot to do with child performance. When students wear uniforms, the teachers can't assume that certain students have certain roles and project their biases onto the students. It's not an attack on teachers. Everybody's got some sort of preconception."

William M. Bart, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, said, "Uniforms set the tone that students are students and that they're there for learning. It gives them an identity: I am a student, I am there to learn, it's my job."

Uniforms also reduce distractions in class, said Dr. Bart, one of the few psychologists in the country to write about the issue.

In 1987, Baltimore City schools became the first public school system in Maryland to try uniforms. Now, about 100 of the city's 121 elementary schools ask students to wear uniforms, as do some schools in Baltimore and Prince George's counties.

The difference in behavior is amazing, say city educators.

"When our students write about it, they describe a good child as one who wears a uniform every day," said Claudia Brown, principal at Brehms Lane Elementary School in Baltimore. "People compliment them. There's a sense of school spirit and well-being. Adults are impressed with children in a school that wear uniforms."

Four years ago, Long Beach Unified School District became one of the first public school systems in the country to try uniforms. Now, it is trying to compile statistics on the effect of uniforms.

The first request in Long Beach came from parents of students at Whittier Elementary School. They wanted to be sure that their children wouldn't be mistaken for gang members, Mr. Van Der Laan said. The uniforms did more than provide protection. "This was an inner-city school with a high transiency rate, and they had the lowest rate of absences among 82 schools after the kids started wearing uniforms," he said.

The district requires 54,000 students in kindergarten through eighth grade to wear uniforms -- everybody but senior high students. Overall, the number of fights in the school district dropped 54 percent from the second half of the 1993 school year compared with the second half of the 1994 school year, Mr. Van Der Laan said. "It's not just conduct that's improved, grades on report cards have increased, too," he said. "I think attire affects the attitude and the conduct. The hallways are quiet and the kids are in class learning."

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