Traditionally favored by private and parochial institutions, school uniforms are being adopted by US public schools in increasing numbers. According to a 2020 report, the percentage of public schools that required school uniforms jumped from 12% in the 1999-2000 school year to 20% in the 2017-18 school year. School uniforms were most frequently required by elementary schools (23%), followed by middle (18%), and high schools (10%).
Proponents say that school uniforms make schools safer for students, create a “level playing field” that reduces socioeconomic disparities, and encourage children to focus on their studies rather than their clothes.
Opponents say school uniforms infringe upon students’ right to express their individuality, have no positive effect on behavior and academic achievement, and emphasize the socioeconomic disparities they are intended to disguise.
History of School Uniforms
The first recorded use of standardized dress in education may have been in England in 1222, when the Archbishop of Canterbury mandated that students wear a robe-like outfit called the “cappa clausa.” The origin of the modern school uniform can be traced to 16th Century England, when the impoverished “charity children” attending the Christ’s Hospital boarding school wore blue cloaks reminiscent of the cassocks worn by clergy, along with yellow stockings. As of Sep. 2014, students at Christ’s Hospital were still wearing the same uniform, and according to the school it is the oldest school uniform still in use. When Christ’s Hospital surveyed its students in 2011, 95% voted to keep the traditional uniforms.
In later centuries, school uniforms became associated with the upper class. At one of England’s most prestigious schools, Eton, students were required to wear black top hats and tails on and off campus until 1972, when the dress codes began to be relaxed.
School uniforms in the United States followed the traditional use of uniforms established in England and were generally limited to private and parochial schools.One exception was found in government-run boarding schools for Native American children, first established in the late 1800s, where the children, who had been removed from their families, were dressed in military-style uniforms.
US School Uniform Movement Begins
The first US public schools known to institute uniform policies were in Maryland and Washington, DC, in the fall of 1987, with Cherry Hill Elementary School in Baltimore, MD, gaining the most publicity. These early uniform programs were voluntary, but according to a New York Times report from Dec. 1987, most parents supported the idea and “almost all” students wore the uniforms. School officials and other advocates of the new uniform policies noted improvements in students’ “frame of mind” and stated that uniforms had “sharply reduced discipline problems.” They also reported that uniforms had “already reduced the preoccupation of students with expensive designer clothing for school wear and eased the financial burden that placed on the students’ families.”The origin of the uniform policy in Baltimore has been linked to a 1986 shooting, in which a local public school student was wounded during a fight over a pair of $95 sunglasses.
By the fall of 1988, 39 public elementary schools and two public junior high schools in Washington, DC, had instituted mandatory uniform polices, and soon the movement spread to other states, including Connecticut and New Jersey, generally in urban schools with mainly low income and minority students. In 1988, Ed Koch, then-Mayor of New York City, expressed support for school uniforms, saying that they encourage “common respect and improve the learning environment,” and praising them because of their similarity to outfits worn in private and parochial schools. A pilot uniform program was introduced in New York City in 1989.
The first school district in the United States to require all its K-8 students to wear uniforms was the Long Beach Unified School District, CA, in Jan. 1994. Later the same year, California Governor Pete Wilson signed a bill officially allowing schools to implement mandatory uniform policies. In accordance with the new law, Long Beach parents were given an opt-out provision. The Long Beach Unified School District announced through a spokesman that gang activity in the area had provided an impetus for the policy: “Every large city in the U.S. has been concerned about the gangs. Their clothes really are an unofficial uniform of intimidation.”
Bill Clinton’s Support of Uniforms
On Jan. 3, 1996, President Bill Clinton told Congress during his State of the Union speech: “[I]f it means that teenagers will stop killing each other over designer jackets, then our public schools should be able to require their students to wear school uniforms.”
On Feb. 25, 1996, President Clinton repeated his message about uniforms in his weekly radio address and during a series of media appearances. On the same day, he ordered the distribution of a school uniform manual to the country’s 16,000 school districts. The manual guided school districts in the legal enforcement of a uniform policy. In July 1998, President Clinton continued his promotion of school uniforms with a speech at the annual convention of the American Federation of Teachers, stating that uniforms help children “feel free” and reduce crime and violence. In response, according to the New York Times, then-US Senator and former US presidential candidate Phil Gramm “accused the President of a tendency toward intrusive government.”
School Uniforms and the Law
In 1969, the US Supreme Court made a decision that would later be used by both uniform proponents and opponents to support their arguments. In Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, the Court ruled 7-2 that schools could not curtail students’ freedom of expression as long as the students’ choices were “not disruptive, and did not impinge upon the rights of others.” The students in question had worn black armbands to protest America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, and school uniform opponents use this decision to argue that students’ choice of what to wear is protected by the Free Speech Clause in the First Amendment of the US Constitution. Uniform proponents, however, cite a passage in Tinker‘s majority opinion that states, “The problem posed by the present case does not relate to regulation of the length of skirts or the type of clothing.”
Several lower courts have made rulings related to school uniforms, often favoring uniform proponents. In a 1995 case, Bivens by Green v. Albuquerque Public Schools, a federal district judge ruled that the desire to wear “sagging pants” prohibited by the school dress code did not constitute freedom of expression because, unlike the wearing of black armbands to protest the Vietnam War, it did not convey a “message,” nor did it represent an ethnic identity: “Sagging is not necessarily associated with a single racial or cultural group, and sagging is seen by some merely as a fashion trend followed by many adolescents all over the United States.” The plaintiff had contended that his choice of outfit was an element of hip hop style favored by minorities and that it constituted a “group identity,” stating that “such intentional identification clearly must involve freedom of expression.”
In Mar. 1997, an Arizona state appeals court upheld Phoenix Preparatory Academy’s mandatory uniform policy, declaring it to be constitutional. This was the first time a judge had upheld a uniform policy that did not provide an “opt-out” provision. One of the students who brought suit against the school district had broken the school’s uniform restrictions by wearing a t- shirt adorned with the US flag and the slogan “I support my country.” The other student filing suit had worn a t-shirt portraying Jesus Christ and the Bible, along with the words “True Spirit” and “The School of Higher Learning.” The unanimous ruling (3-0) in Phoenix Elementary School District No. 1 v. Green found that by enforcing a uniform policy, the school “regulated the medium of expression, not the message” and found that school was “not a public forum” in which freedom of expression would be more strictly protected. The court accepted the school district’s claim that it adopted the uniform policy to serve several pedagogically “reasonable” purposes, including the promotion of “a more effective climate for learning,” “campus safety and security,” “school unity and pride,” and “modest dress.”
In the summer of 1999, controversy erupted in Florida when Polk County Schools Superintendent Glenn Reynolds suggested that parents could be jailed if they failed to comply with the new mandatory uniform policy. Reynolds stated that parents who allow their children to be dressed out of uniform are “contributing to the delinquency of a child,” before later retracting his comments.
In Jan. 2000, the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, which opposes school uniforms, represented a nine year-old student who was suspended twice for his refusal to wear a school uniform because it conflicted with his family’s religious beliefs. According to court records in Hicks v. Halifax County Board of Education, the student’s great-grandmother and guardian believed that “wearing a uniform demonstrates an allegiance to the spirit of the anti-Christ, a being that requires uniformity, sameness, enforced conformity, and the absence of diversity.” The school agreed to amend its school uniform policy to allow for religious exemptions.
In May 2008, a three-judge panel of the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 in Jacobs v. Clark County School District that the mandatory school uniform policy introduced by the Nevada district is constitutional. An 11th grade student and her parents had sued the district for refusing to allow her to wear a shirt displaying a message presenting her religious beliefs. The court ruled that the district’s uniform policy was not restricting any one viewpoint in particular, and that therefore the policy was “content neutral” and not an infringement of “pure speech.”
In Feb. 2014, a three-judge panel of the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found 3-0 that the uniform policy of Roy Gomm Elementary School in Reno, NV may be unconstitutional, but sent the case back to a lower court for review. The panel ruled that the school’s insistence that its uniform shirts bear the motto “Tomorrow’s Leaders” may violate First Amendment rights because it “compelled speech.”No US states require school uniforms by statute and no states ban uniforms. Massachusetts law states that “School officials shall not abridge the rights of students as to personal dress and appearance,” but another section of the law stipulates that this provision applies only to cities and towns which “accept” it.
Students at Charter Day School in Leland, North Carolina successfully challenged a uniform policy that prohibited girls from wearing pants or shorts to school. Judge Malcolm J. Howard of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina ruled in Mar. 2019 that the school’s stated desire to uphold traditional values and instill discipline had no connection to requiring girls to wear skirts, jumpers or skorts. That decision was reversed in 2021 by a panel of three judges in the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, only to be vacated by the full panel of judges. On June 14, 2022, the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, Virginia, voted 10-6 that Charter Day School violated female students’ rights by requiring them to wear skirts. The ruling stated the school “has imposed the skirts requirement with the express purpose of telegraphing to children that girls are ‘fragile,’ require protection by boys and warrant different treatment than male students, stereotypes with potentially devastating consequences for young girls.”
US Uniform Statistics
According to figures released in 2018 by the National Center for Education Statistics, the total number of public schools nationwide requiring students to wear school uniforms increased from 12% during the 1999-2000 school year to 21% during the 2015-2016 school year.In 2015-2016, 25% of public primary schools enforced a uniform policy, as did 20% of public middle schools and 12% of public high schools. A higher proportion of schools located in cities had mandatory uniforms in 2015-2016 than schools in suburban, town, and rural areas. Mandatory uniforms were far more prevalent in “high-poverty” schools (in which 76% of students were eligible for reduced-cost or free lunch programs) than in “low-poverty” schools.
Among the US cities with the highest use of school uniforms in public schools are Philadelphia (100% of schools), New Orleans (95%), Cleveland (85%), Chicago (80%), Boston (65%), and Miami (60%).The number of schools with “strict dress codes” has also increased, from 47% in 2000 to 57% in 2010.
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