School dress codes not fashionable for all

Friday, April 30, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:55 a.m. CDT, Thursday, July 10, 2008

As girls' clothing gets smaller, boys' clothing gets bigger and parents' patience grows thinner, the mention of school uniforms and dress codes tends to creep into the conversation. Studies on the effect of uniforms on student behavior, however, have produced mixed results.

The basic idea behind uniforms and dress codes is that they help provide a safe and disciplined learning environment, and they help to enhance the learning environment by helping students concentrate on their schoolwork.

One study, conducted in 1998 by the University of Notre Dame sociology department, found that there is no direct effect on substance use, behavioral problems or attendance. The study concluded that uniform and dress code policies may indirectly affect school environment and student outcomes by providing a visible and public symbol to school improvement and reform.

The Columbia Public Schools currently don't require students to wear uniforms or adhere to a dress code, but students in many of the city's private schools do have to wear uniforms and follow dress codes. School adminstrators and parents at Columbia private schools with mandatory uniforms and dress codes seem to be in favor of them.

The students at Christian Chapel Academy in Columbia are required to follow a dress code that allows only certain types of clothing in certain colors. Polo and oxford shirts and sweaters are protocol for the top of the body, while boys' bottoms are limited to navy or khaki pants or shorts and girls' bottoms can be pants, shorts, skorts or jumpers but must be khaki, navy or plaid. Cargo-style pants and shorts and capri-style clothes for girls are strictly prohibited.

Vince Winn, administrator at Christian Chapel Academy, says there are three reasons for the dress code at Christian Chapel Academy: modesty, appropriateness and inclusion.

"We want all students to feel included whether they are 'in style' or out of style; it's also important for students to be modest and not have to worry about having their pants hanging too low or showing too much skin, and it's important for students to know when certain types of dress are appropriate," Winn said. "We know that dress affects attitude, and when students dress for work, they come to work."

While students at Christian Chapel Academy are required to wear a uniform and follow a specific dress code, this doesn't mean that they can't ever express themselves through clothing. There are several times during the school year when students are allowed to "dress down," including Spirit Week, when students dress according to theme, and on early dismissal days, when students are allowed to wear jeans.

Students at Columbia Independent School are also required to follow a dress code. Similar to the dress code at Christian Chapel Academy, students wear khaki or navy bottoms and either a polo, dress shirt or sweater on top. Girls have the option to wear skorts and jumpers in addition to shorts or pants.

The idea of a dress code was first presented by parents of students who wanted the emphasis to be on learning rather than what the students were wearing. In response to parents' concerns, the school conducted a survey and found that 85 percent of those surveyed were in favor of a dress code.

Barbara Savage, principal of the lower (K-5) school, said she wasn't sure she liked the idea.

"I wasn't sure that I would like it at first," Savage said. "But it really does make a difference, students don't have to worry about who's wearing Gap or not. Students don't even talk about that here."

Bridget Concannon, a fourth-grader at Columbia Independent School, said she doesn't mind the dress code but sometimes finds it hard to not wear the clothes she likes.

"I know that I have to follow the dress code," Concannon said. "But sometimes I just wish that I could wear what I want to school, it's really hard when we go shopping for school clothes."

While in the past, school uniforms were private-school domain, calling to mind images of ties on boys and plaid skirts on girls, they have now entered the public realm.

One district that has gone to a mandatory dress code is the Long Beach Unified school district in California. This dress code, which is not a traditional uniform, but a specific way of dressing, affects 60,000 elementary and middle school students. The results for the Long Beach district so far have been positive. The district is reporting a 31 percent decrease in suspensions, 51 percent decrease in fighting and an 18 percent decrease in vandalism.

While the Long Beach district is having success, there are opposing opinions. The most often heard disagreement is that mandatory dress and uniforms are infringing on students' First Amendment rights.

The landmark case involving dress codes and uniforms was Tinker v. Des Moines in 1969. The Supreme Court struck down a school district ban on armbands protesting the Vietnam War. The court said that the policy was based on a specific viewpoint and allowed other forms of protest.

The most recent case involving dress codes and uniforms occurred in Louisiana. The Supreme Court upheld a mandatory dress code in a public school district. The court said the uniform and dress code will pass constitutional scrutiny if it furthers a substantial government interest, the interest is unrelated to the suppression of student speech and the incidental infringement of the First Amendment is no more than necessary to facilitate the government interest.

If the question is raised in Missouri, the legislature already has a revised statute that directly addresses the topic of dress codes. The statute states, "A public school district in any city not within a county shall determine whether a dress code policy requiring students to wear a school uniform is appropriate."

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