You can't tell them apart -- good!

January 28, 1996|By George F. Will

PHOENIX -- ''Hormones,'' is his answer. The question put to the concise Ramon Leyba is this: What makes a school full of teen-agers turbulent?

There were 1,174 of that species at Phoenix Preparatory Academy, when Mr. Leyba, who is principal, instituted, after consultation with the community, a policy requiring the wearing of a school uniform. The policy was accepted by 1,172 students and their parents.

The two who objected found, or perhaps were found by, a lawyer. He decided the school-uniform policy was the thin end of the wedge of fascism, or at least a rape of the First Amendment -- clothes as speech -- and a threat to the full blossoming of that delicate flower, the soul of the teen-ager.

Litigating and fulminating

He began litigating and fulminating, vowing ''guerrilla warfare'' leading to victory ''by getting the media worked up, by getting the time of your administrators used up.'' He said ''there aren't enough National Guard troops in the state'' to deal with his war.

The war is over. A judge is making permanent the temporary restraining order that tells the lawyer's clients, who refuse to wear the uniform, to keep off the academy's campus and transfer to a public school that does not require uniforms. Justice sometimes prevails, even when a court is involved.

The Phoenix Preparatory Academy, now in its fourth year, is a diamond in a lead setting. It is a sparkling, gated middle school in the shadow of downtown commercial towers, but mostly surrounded by what nowadays is called a challenging urban environment. In a less delicate age such environments were called slums.

The school's name, which suggests a tony private school, was chosen to inspirit this public school, which has a mission that requires spirit. Its mission is to educate a student body that is 92 percent minorities and that is drawn from a sprawling district large enough to be enlivened by 15 teen-age gangs -- guns and hormones.

Island of order

Mr. Leyba wanted his school to be an island of order for his students, 80 percent of whom cite neighborhood violence as a cause of stress. He and other school officials thought uniforms would help.

They thought uniforms would improve the climate for learning by eliminating ''label competition'' and other peer pressure concerning clothing; by eliminating gang clothing and enabling security personnel to identify trespassers instantly; by instilling school spirit and pride, and by equalizing at least one sphere of life for children from different socioeconomic settings.

(At a California school that requires uniforms, a teacher told a visitor to a classroom that one student was the child of a wealthy movie producer, another lived in a shelter for the homeless. The visitor was asked if he could tell which was which. He could not.)

Phoenix school officials knew that when uniforms were required in elementary and middle schools in Long Beach, California, in the 1994-95 school year, attendance and test scores improved, incidents of students fighting decreased 50 percent, student crimes decreased 36 percent and student suspensions decreased 32 percent.

Parents like the academy's uniforms (white tops with collars and without printed messages; blue bottoms) because they usually save clothing budgets and because they prevent 7 a.m. arguments about appropriate dress.

The anti-fascist lawyer was abetted by the local American Civil Liberties Union, but was stymied by one of the academy's constitutional subtleties: Students are allowed to wear buttons bearing political, religious and other messages.

This means that not only is the uniform policy ''content neutral,'' a student who can no longer wear America's foremost literary genre, the T-shirt, emblazoned with a message praising Jesus or Charles Barkley, cannot claim to be utterly oppressed.

The anti-fascist lawyer wanted the academy to allow parents to opt out of the uniform requirement. School officials argued that in California, which has adopted a state law requiring an opt-out procedure, the uniform policy is eroding. Besides, school officials argued, a uniform might teach students to express themselves other than through what they wear.

The day the judge issued the temporary restraining order, the lawyer filed for $2 million in damages for his clients. It cost the school district about $70,000 in legal fees to fend off the lawyer. It is a measure of the condition of contemporary America that it is considered a bargain when a victory for common sense costs only $70,000.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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