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School Uniforms: Pros and Cons

There is something comforting about schoolchildren dressed in pleats and plaid. Maybe it reminds us of our own childhood, or conjures up thoughts of order and safety. Whatever the reason, one thing's for sure -- school uniforms are getting a lot of wear these days.

From California to Boston, some of the nation's largest school districts now have uniform policies. In New York City alone, more than half a million elementary-school students will be wearing them by next fall.

The Case for Uniforms
No long-term, formal studies have been done on the effectiveness of school uniforms, but many schools have kept their own informal statistics. California's Long Beach Unified School District's records are probably cited most often. This urban district adopted a mandatory uniform policy in 1994. Since then, school crime has dropped by 76 percent, while attendance has reached an all-time high.

If You're a Skeptic, Get in Line
But Long Beach's glowing statistics have been met with skepticism. Some education experts say that no school can prove that uniforms alone cause such dramatic reductions in crime. Other detractors see uniform policies as a violation of students' rights to free expression, and nothing more than a Band-Aid that fails to address the real causes of youth violence.

Pros and Cons
Dr. Alan Hilfer, senior psychologist in the Children's and Adolescent Unit at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn says, "Uniforms do eliminate competition, pressure, and assaults perpetrated by older kids on younger kids for their sneakers and other possessions. They also allow some kids to focus better, especially in the lower grades." But Dr. Hilfer says there is a downside: "Clothes are a source of expression for children, and as kids get older, they become increasingly resentful of uniforms."

From the Trenches
Anthony Poet, assistant principal at the Pueblo Del Sol Middle School in Arizona, recently instituted a uniform policy in his school. He's the first to agree that kids don't like uniforms. But he noticed that the same kids who said they hated the policy also said they're glad to have it. One student confirms, "Uniforms make the school safer, but I don't like them."

Since his school began requiring uniforms, Poet has documented a remarkable drop in discipline problems. But until a long-term study is done, he says he can't be sure whether it's the uniforms or the act of instituting the policy that's made the difference. Dr. Hilfer explains: "Discipline problems may be decreasing in schools with uniforms because the schools (and the parents) have begun taking the issue of discipline more seriously."

Are Uniforms Right for Your District?
According to Dr. Hilfer, strict dress codes are not for everybody. "Some schools thrive on permissiveness and individuality, while others have to be more restrictive to contain a restless student body." Before making the uniform decision, he suggests that schools carefully consider their unique populations; what kind of message they want to send; and whether or not they think their kids will go for it. Dr. Hilfer warns, "By instituting a uniform policy, schools are taking away kids' individuality -- schools need to decide if that sacrifice is worth making."

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