Elementary in Carroll is starting voluntary pupil uniform policy

Effectiveness of policies is untested, educator says

August 11, 1999|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

A casual conversation at a birthday party more than a year ago could produce a wave of tan-and-red clothing at Hampstead Elementary School this month when it becomes Carroll County's first public school where pupils can wear uniforms.

The county Board of Education is to hear a report on the plan for the voluntary student uniform program at its regular meeting today.

"Basically, it was a grass-roots movement," said Rosemary Reginaldi, treasurer of Hampstead Elementary School PTA, who has three children at the school.

"I think they were surprised that we were as persistent as we were and going ahead and getting ready for the first day of school."

Fifty-five percent of the 460 postcards sent with a survey to parents last month were returned, she said.

The 254 responses showed 200 in favor, 51 opposed and three undecided.

"Based on that, we're going ahead with plans for the uniforms," Reginaldi said.

The uniforms will be khaki shorts or slacks, plus shorts, skirts, skirts or jumpers for girls. Tops will be red polo shirts, mock-turtleneck sweaters, sweaters or sweat shirts.

A list of local stores and catalogs that will provide the clothing is being prepared.

Reginaldi said she has had an inquiry from Carroll County Council of PTAs, saying other schools were interested.

"They said we were the pilot program. They'll watch us for a year or so," she said.

Reginaldi said she was picking her daughter up from a birthday party in April 1998 when the birthday girl's mother asked her, " `Why can't we have uniforms?' That's how it started.

"But we never got an answer from the school administration, and it was sort of put on the back burner," she said, until Superintendent William H. Hyde held a town meeting in Hampstead in May and encouraged the group to look into the level of community support for the idea.

The school doesn't have disciplinary problems or pupils who wear outrageous clothing, she said, but parents favor the idea because of the ease of getting children dressed in the morning, and to reduce visual distraction and peer pressure.

"People want to say it doesn't start in elementary school, but it does, it does," Reginaldi said. "People need to get to know someone before they get pigeonholed, through writing, artwork, music and overall personality and character rather than clothing."

Some older students expressed interest, she said, after the April 20 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado that left 15 dead.

She said she thinks uniforms can improve discipline, morale and grades at schools, and noted that many private and parochial schools have used them for years.

The parents who objected to uniforms said children should have freedom of choice, that clothing is a way of expressing individuality and that if they wanted their children to wear uniforms they would have sent them to private schools, Reginaldi said.

"Of course, that makes an enormous amount of difference if it is voluntary," said Susan Goering, executive director of the Maryland affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union.

"Legally, there's not much to stop a school system from doing it. Philosophically, I think it's a different question."

The ACLU has received no complaints recently, she said, but occasionally gets calls. She said the policy could raise questions about students' rights of expression.

"People express who they are, their individuality, through what they wear," Goering said.

"But it could be a question of religious freedom. For instance, a Muslim wouldn't like a uniform that bares the legs, or a student with disabilities could have a problem."

"Uniforms by their very nature don't take into account individual circumstances," Goering said. "Of course, if it's really voluntary -- then it's not a uniform policy."

Monica Smith, principal at Hampstead Elementary, said she would wait to see the policy in action before passing judgment.

She stressed she has no power either to implement or to block the plan, because it is a parent initiative and it is voluntary.

"Our students work collaboratively, and there is not a severe discipline problem," she said. "I don't know what other positive effects there will be."

President Clinton called for school uniforms in February 1996 to foster unity and to stop students from killing each other for items of clothing. Since then, cities across the county have adopted uniform policies.

Baltimore County has 16 schools with uniform policies, but none is mandatory, said spokesman Charles A. Herndon III.

Most are started by parents. No one has complained, although the uniforms "run the gamut from a golf shirt with a school logo to a full uniform -- short of epaulets and brass buttons," he said. The county has no data, he said, but "I think folks are fairly pleased with it." "I'm not aware of any research that has been done on uniforms, per se," said Sandy Shepherd, a specialist in the school-community outreach office of the State Department of Education.

The movement for uniforms in public schools probably will require at least another year to study, she said. "But some folks feel that it contributes overall to a safer environment."

Sun staff writer David L. Greene contributed to this article.

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