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QotD: School Uniforms

Question: Do you believe public schools should have uniforms?

My Answer: I do. Studies (look 'em up) have shown that public schools that have uniforms have less violence and better behaved students. The cool kids will still be cool but at least the dorks will have one less thing to be worried about. Money isn't an issue - it costs less to have five school uniforms (something simple - khaki pants and Oxford shirts for the guys) than it does a closetful of clothes. A t-shirt saying "Fuck Jesus" (I've seen them) is not "free speech" if the student doesn't know what they're saying. Just as we don't allow the "rights" of adults to everyone, I don't necessarily believe that the freedom of speech extends to the mini-skirt and midriff-baring baby-T on a 14-year-old girl. Students shouldn't necessarily have the right to express themselves through their clothing because, quite frankly, all they wind up saying is "I'm a gangsta" or "I'm a slut" or "I'm rich, see my Chanel?"

That all being said, I wouldn't mind if every Friday was a casual day without uniforms. Or perhaps tie casual days into a rewards system (grades, behavior, whatever).

Edit: Clarified initial position; added note about studies.

You are encouraged to answer the Question of the Day for yourself in the comments or on your blog.

20 Responses to "QotD: School Uniforms"

  1. I think it's a good idea, as it does get rid of socioeconomic status signaling and the jealousy issues that come along with it. It also keeps 13 year old girls from dressing like prostitutes and 13 year old boys from wearing their pants down at their thighs.

    I was able to avoid wearing uniforms in school, but they ended up making them mandatory for my sister (who is 3.5 years younger than me) in elementary school and middle school. Both schools had "no uniform" days where you could pay a buck to get a sticker that let you not wear uniforms for the day, with the money being donated to the United Way.

  2. I'm cool with school uniforms. Sounds like a good idea.

    On what do you base your statement about a "Fuck Jesus" t-shirt not being free speech? Honestly, I don't know, has there been a Supreme Court ruling on that or something?

    I can understand if a school or other institution doesn't want people displaying profanity and has some specific regulation against it. But I think, in general, it would be covered under the 1st amendment. I recall a recent incident on an airplane where someone had some kind of offensive saying on their shirt and they were asked to remove or reverse the shirt or something. Ok, here it is.

    I wonder what would have happened if that case had gone to trial.

  3. What is your rationale for saying that the message "Fuck Jesus" is not protected expression? Is it because you do not consider the medium of clothing to be "speech", or because you disapprove of the message, or because of some other reason?

    I do not have any problem with private schools having uniforms, but I believe it is unconstitutional for a public institution (which citizens are required by law to attend) to restrict speech without a clear demonstration that the speech harms others or puts them at direct risk. It is the responsibility of a 21st-century school to produce graduates who are productive members of the society, who will participate in their representative government with a full understanding and appreciation of the rights and responsibilities that go along with citizenship. One of those fundamental rights is the right to free speech, a right which we must all protect even if the specific message being expressed (be it "Fuck Jesus" or "I believe I am better than you because I have more money") is contrary to our own opinion or even deeply offensive.

    I believe that many of those who argue for school uniforms on the basis that it evens the playing field between rich and poor students are acting out of compassion and generosity. But I do not feel that the inequities of class within individual schools constitute a danger to the students that is so great it justifies giving up a liberty which is central to our national identity. The only examples that come to mind where I would support limited restrictions on clothing are for public health reasons (requiring that certain parts of the body be covered) or in situations where wearing specific items is overwhelmingly likely to lead to direct harm (such as forbidding the wearing of gang emblems or colors).

  4. On what do you base your statement about a "Fuck Jesus" t-shirt not being free speech?

    On my own beliefs… Free speech is used as a crutch to explain ridiculous behavior. Free speech guarantees that we can speak out against our government without retaliation (by the government), and other things. It's a very serious, important liberty. Your average high school student wearing such a shirt is doing it to get a rise out of people, not because they're trying to make a social statement. Not one other than non-conformity or rebellion, anyway.

    Hate crime laws would tend to agree with me.

    As for the Portland bit, I would not have personally cared what her shirt said, but it's an entirely different situation. She's a customer choosing to fly in such a situation, not a child expecting to be able to go to school without having - in my example - their beliefs ridiculed in a profane manner.

  5. Patrick:

    If you don't think "Fuck Jesus" would "harm" some religious student expecting to go to school without having their whole belief system profanely ridiculed, I would find it hard to believe you live in the U.S.

    There is, naturally, a difference between what would bother me or you (such a shirt wouldn't bother me unless it said "Fuck Erik J. Barzeski," and even then it would depend on the circumstance) and what "harms" someone else.

    Speech is only really speech if the "speaker" knows what the fuck they're trying to say. If they're doing something to get a rise out of someone or to piss someone off or "just to be cool," that ain't free speech. That's just unintelligible screaming.

    We have a right to produce responsible students, but we also have a responsibility to ensure that we have a safe environment for both students and teachers. Uniforms, among other things, have shown that they reduce violence in schools. Your feelings that the inequality family in income don't result in "danger" is wrong (and has been proven to be so time and time again by reputed social scientists and educators).

  6. Your final point is an interesting one, and if there was conclusive empirical evidence that moving to a uniform policy reduced instances of harm to students, I would accept that as evidence that harm was being caused by the speech that was presumably ended by the adoption of the uniform policy. I'd be interested if you could pass along references to any such studies.

    That being said, I don't believe that a message challenging a specific religious belief constitutes "harm" to those holding the belief. After all, if (hypothetically) I believe that George Bush was sent by God to lead America to the righteous path, isn't someone who campaigns against him and criticizes his policies challenging my belief system in the same way?

    I'm also frightened by your suggestion that the decision of which instances of expression ought to be silenced should be based on what what level of quality one person (no matter how intelligent or well-meaning) assigns to that expression. I'm not sure how hate crimes laws (which, in my understanding, assign more serious penalties to actions which were already crimes if the actions are judged to be hate crimes) support your position that free speech is only protected when it is used to meaningfully criticize the government (or in certain other cases which you don't specify). In fact, I'm not aware of any laws or court judgements that establish a limit on rights to free speech based on the quality or meaningfulness of the speech.

    Thanks for fostering such a spirited debate on your blog. It says a lot that such a controversial issue can be debated politely here without resorting to flames as it would many other places online.

  7. Patrick, I never said (or meant to say, anyway) that the reduction in violence had anything to do with clipping a student's right to free speech. I believe it's due more to an economic and social levelling of the playing field. Surely you remember high school and the pressures to "dress" properly regardless of the clique you were in.

    Furthermore, the hate crime tangent may have been a bit severe. Free speech, however, does not give anyone the right to harrass anyone else, and "Fuck Jesus" (or "Fuck Buddha" or "Fuck Atheists" or whatever) could probably be argued quite easily to be harrassment.

    Ideals are great, but we live in a real world. I'm willing to sacrifice a small bit of free speech (particularly from those who only seem to be saying "I'm a slut!") for the added safety of students and teachers. And I'd have been willing to do it when I was in high school, too, lest anyone think this is simply how I feel now.

  8. I certainly agree that there are serious socioeconomic inequalities within and between schools that need to be addressed. Perhaps that's what makes this national debate so fervent: everyone is working towards the same ideals, it's just that some (like myself) believe certain cures are worse than the disease.

    My point in focusing on the harm is that for the state (or its delegates such as public schools) to supress the rights of individuals, the standard of necessity is very high. Some harm must be inflicted or at least imminently threatened by the speech, and by "harm" I don't mean damage to ego or sense of self-importance. It's possible that "Fuck Jesus" would be sufficently obscene to be harmful -- but it would be the "fuck" part, not the "Jesus" part that wsa harmful.

    But my intention is not to argue that a specific piece of clothing can't be found to be beyond 1st Amendment protection; my intention is to argue that a blanket restriction on all forms of expression through choice of clothing is going too far to be justified by what level of harm or imminent harm has been demonstrated.

    When you're deciding which rights you're willing to give up, keep in mind that individual students already have the right to make that tradeoff for themselves. They can exercise this right to choose by attending a private school that has a uniform policy, although it is more likely their parents would exercise that right on their children's behalf. Even if a family doesn't have the means to send their children to private school, they can exercise the right to restrain their own speech for what they consider increased safety by simply choosing not to wear inflammatory clothing. What I'm arguing against is the presumption that the state has the power to take that right away from citizens against their will. Absent some clear demonstration that students are being harmed by other students having the freedom to choose which clothes to wear, I think it is unconstitutional to restrict that choice.

    I don't want to abuse the hospitality you have shown in welcoming this debate onto your own blog. So I'll just say thanks for the stimulating topic.

  9. my intention is to argue that a blanket restriction on all forms of expression through choice of clothing is going too far to be justified by what level of harm or imminent harm has been demonstrated.

    Violence - stabbings, fistfights, etc. - decrease quite dramatically in schools that have a standard uniform. If literal blood is being lost, I'd qualify that as a level of harm that warrants removing the free speech via clothing of students. They can protest or speak out all they want.

    "Fuck Jesus" was just an example. How about someone wearing a Nazi symbol? How about "God Hates Gays"? How about the girl dressing like a slut?

    When you're deciding which rights you're willing to give up, keep in mind that individual students already have the right to make that tradeoff for themselves.

    Of course they always have that option. What they don't have is the option to ask others to dress appropriately. Saying "go to a private school" is an easy out, Patrick. A child - and his parents - have the right to expect a safe school environment, and if cutting off freedom of expression via clothing can help to improve the safety of a school - as studies have shown it to do - then I would tend to say that someone who opposes the idea has his head in the clouds.

    they can exercise the right to restrain their own speech for what they consider increased safety by simply choosing not to wear inflammatory clothing.

    What one person wears has little to no effect on the likelihood they'll be a victim of violence. Kids in uniforms are less violent than kids not in uniforms, but that only applies when everyone is in the same group. A kid choosing to wear a uniform when others are wearing whatever the hell they want is not reducing the likelihood he'll be a victim of violence.

    What I'm arguing against is the presumption that the state has the power to take that right away from citizens against their will.

    First of all, you've yet to convince anyone that a 14-year-old wearing a slutty outfit is a form of free speech. Second of all, this country routinely strips the rights of minors in the interest of their safety. If we can decide as a country that minors can't enter into a contract prior to the age of 18 (or drive a car prior to 15 or 16, or smoke or drink before 18 or 21, or look at porn prior to 18), why is it such a reach to say that a minor may not understand the power and/or implications of "free speech," particularly when expressed through non-verbal and most frequently non-written forms of communication?

    Absent some clear demonstration that students are being harmed by other students having the freedom to choose which clothes to wear, I think it is unconstitutional to restrict that choice.

    Patrick, physical harm is more likely to come to students in a school without a dress code than with one. It's been demonstrated several times over. Please look at some of the studies, please drop "Fuck Jesus" for the off-the-top-of-my-head example it was, and have another go at it if you wish.

  10. i really dont know what any of you guys would know about any of it... not to be rude or anything but i actually go to school and see the stuff that goes on... i went to a school with uniforms and a public school... and i could really care less.. uniforms arnt that bad and neither are most kids clothes... i dont understand why its such a big issue...

  11. Enough details, let's talk fundamentals. Every person is born with the desire to succeed. And success in the most fundamental sense isn't being rich, it is in having a great reputation in the eyes of as many people as possible. While our social systems currently only recognise bad reputations, your so called "rebels" and worse, will continue to do things that make them stand out from the crowd. To have no Identity is for many worse than no life.

    Want to fix this situation? Then start considering ways in which individuals are rewarded for doing the right things. In doing so you will be spending less than we currently spend on keeping criminals in jail, but achieving far more. Hey, and even the law-abiding citizens will gain, through not working their arses off for five days just to survive another week with zero recognition and a few dollars left after tax to get drunk, stoned and whatever else helps them to forget the life that could have been.

  12. Free speech, however, does not give anyone the right to harrass anyone else, and "Fuck Jesus" (or "Fuck Buddha" or "Fuck Atheists" or whatever) could probably be argued quite easily to be harrassment.

    I agree that an argument can probably be made for disallowing such t-shirts in schools. But I think you're way off on claiming this could easily be considered harassment. Harassment requires more specific action to be taken on the harasser's part (for instance constantly following a Christian student around the school building and making sure they have to keep seeing the t-shirt might meet the requirement). But I can't think of a single instance of where simply wearing a t-shirt with a statement could be classified as harassment.

  13. I'm willing to sacrifice a small bit of free speech ... for the added safety of students and teachers.

    Says Erik,

    They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.

    Benjamin Franklin responds.

    More substantively, do you really believe that it would have an enduring impact on the level of safety of the students and teachers? There's certainly a problem of the socioeconomic gap, but covering it up doesn't make it go away. It's still there, and it will still be used to harass people, just in new and creative ways.

    Are you really willing to allow the state the dictate how people should dress, just to cover up a problem that's not going to "just go away"?

  14. More substantively, do you really believe that it would have an enduring impact on the level of safety of the students and teachers?

    Given the studies that show that it has a lasting impact, yes. I not only believe it, I know it.

    The freedom of an entire country has absolutely nothing to do with a teen dressing like a slut. It's irresponsible to bring Ben Franklin into it, particularly when you've failed to answer the question for yourself.

    Henceforth, if you fail to answer the question and back it up before attempting to disassemble someone else's position, you disqualify yourself from answering and your comment will be removed. At least have the balls to put your own opinion out there, particularly when asked a question.

  15. In my experience, school uniforms are almost always poorly made, and the ones available for girls are typically immodest -- they look like cheerleading outfits.

  16. Excuse me for being rhetorical. I think I made it perfectly clear what my opinion is, but if you'd like it in my own words: I do not believe that school uniforms solve any problem, and therefore I am unwilling to give up any form of liberty for them.

    I'm aware of studies, and I am equally aware of studies going the opposite direction. (1) I am not really concerned with either. Whether or not uniforms are effective in covering up the problem is not particularly important to me.

    Even if uniforms can conceal the problem, it will still be there. Maybe kids won't get beaten up at school. Maybe the fighting will be more subtle. Maybe it will go away for a few years, and come back again later.

    Problems like the serious socioeconomic gap that exists in American society can't be swept under the carpet by uniforms. In all seriousness, I think you're deluding yourself if you believe it.

    Finally, I resent the accusation of being irresponsible. Since when is defending the rights of residents of this country to dress as they please irresponsible? We must have very different definitions of the word...

    The freedom of an entire country has everything to do with a person's right to act as they see fit. It is the government's perogative to limit that right only when it can is in the direct public interest to do so. But that is not the case with uniforms. They might buy some temporary safety, but they will not solve the problem long-term. And when they don't, you have taken away a right of the American people to what purpose?

    (1) The first source I could find:
    David L. Brunsma, D.L. and Rockquemore, K.A. (1998) Effects of Student Uniforms on Attendance, Behavior Problems, Substance Abuse, and Academic Achievement, The Journal of Education Research Volume 92, Number 1, Sept./Oct. 1998, pp. 53-62

    I have a PDF copy from my college's archives. I don't want to make it publically available, but if you contact me directly I could make it available to you.

  17. Problems like the serious socioeconomic gap that exists in American society can't be swept under the carpet by uniforms.

    I'm not sure it's sweeping anything under the carpet. I don't know where you live, but from what I've seen here (I have no factual evidence, these are personal observations) in New York City the most economically disadvantaged kids tend to show up at school with the most expensive clothes and shoes (just as even the poorest areas seem to have some of the most expensive cars and SUVs parked in the streets - it makes no sense, but it's reality). For example, they'll laugh and make fun of people who buy shoes at Payless, even though with the absurdly low wages their parent(s) are making that's exactly where they should be shopping. Instead, their parents buy them the latest $200 sneakers. If a school uniform policy can reduce this irresponsible spending (all in the name of maintaining some perceived form of social "status"), then that will automatically help close the socioeconomic gap. This certainly isn't "the" solution to the problem, but it might be a good place to start.

    (Of course, the policy would have to actually be enforced. I brought up NYC as an example but those schools that do have a uniform policy simply don't enforce it, so some kids wear uniforms and others don't. That's not very useful either.)

  18. As a 7th grade teacher, I firmly believe that uniforms would solve several problems at the middle school level. Violence and crime are not significant concerns at my school, but teasing is. I see and hear students teasing each other for clothing choices at least a dozen times a day. Every day students wear outfits that are distracting to the education of themselves and others. In middle school, distracting clothing choices lead to lower productivity in students and behavioral issues (I see this every day too). Unfortunately some parents (and students who change after they get to school) buy clothing that is inappropriate for any pre-teen to wear anywhere, especially in a learning environment. My students have plenty of time to express themselves through class discussions, creative projects, and problem solving activities. Wearing a short skirt, a tiny shirt, or baggy jeans isn't expression; it's a distraction. Students are constantly tugging at their clothing, complaining about being cold, playing with their clothing, picking at other's clothing, helping each other cover up around teachers...it's insane! I've had several students tell me that they wish our school had uniforms. We teach in teams and uniforms could be created to foster team and school spirit.

    A previous poster mentioned that kids will find something else to tease each other about - this is true kids will tease each other about anything and everything! But why not take away a huge source of teasing and distraction?

    Uniforms don't have to be plaid skirts and knee socks. In fact I don't know of any local schools with cheerleader like uniforms for girls. A school in the Erie area (Harbor Creek) adopted a uniform policy that seems pretty relaxed. Teachers wear uniforms too!

  19. Yes, I think that some public schools should have a school uniform.
    I think that the definition of uniform should be fairly loose though. I think it should be read that there is a set pattern or style of clothes that students are expected to be wearing when they come to school. This could mean that the students are expected to wear clothing selected by their school board with the school's colors, name, and/or mascot on it.

    I also feel that at many public schools the clothing should be free along with the education. This seems outrageous at first, and would certainly raise the cost of an already difficult to afford educational system, but it already happens in public institutions. In the military, soldiers are issued uniforms. The public pays for all of these uniforms. Also, many schools receive private sponsorships for their athletic programs. Most of these free uniforms could be sponsored by private companies or Non-profit organizations.

    Carey's response about middle school students is valid, and brings up a potential solution to much of this bickering. Progressive uniforms. Elementary students can have one type of uniform, middle school students can have another type of uniform, and high school students can have yet another uniform. Perhaps the high school students could submit design ideas for their uniform each year so they have a better sense of self expression.

    One negative aspect of uniforms that should be discussed is the cultural implication of enforcing a uniform. Not every American student is an American. Many people in large American cities attend schools here, but are not really from here. Imposing our cultural standards on people from other cultures has gotten Westerners into a lot of trouble and has earned us great disfavor with people from other nations and cultures. Western culture continues to grow and dominate other cultures as globalization takes root and grows. Imposing uniforms on our youth also imposes a set of cultural choices on them. This imposition says that T-shirts, Polos, Oxfords, knit sweaters, etc are 'more standard' than tank tops, hoodies, kilts, saris, turbans, and anything else a youth might wear. We (westerners) continue to disregard the cultural implications of our choices. If we decide to mandate a particular uniform we will ultimately be using the state to sponsor a very particular culture… probably some representation of the Western semi-formal business culture. State sponsored culture is not state sponsored religion, but in many cases the two are very close.

    I think that this question is a good one, and addressing it with some serious could really benefit any state or our whole nation, but I think that we need to look at some of the side issues with a lot of respect. Ultimately, it would seem wise to find out what the positives and negatives of any solution are and then try to get as many positives from the solution as possible while avoiding the negative ramifications that stem from the solution.

  20. I realize this is an old post, but I happened upon it, and I have some comments.

    Most parents dont have the time to tell their kids what to wear in school. The only people you can blame for this, is the parents. If you have kids, its your responsibility.

    School is a place to learn first, and socialize second. It is a place of business. Uniforms reinforce this concept, which I believe to be the right concept.

    Finally, American public schools are underperforming in many areas. This has great implications for the future of the US. If we dont find better ways to educate students, they will not go to college, and become productive for the future economy. American students are competing with people from China and India, which have cultures that emphasize education more than in America. Taking this extra competition, the rising American debt, and an aging baby boomer population into account, these kids will have alot to pay for. This requires them to be the better educated than Indian and Chinese students, so they can be more productive, and make more money in the global economy. I find this to be the real American national security issue.

    Learning requires focus and discipline. School uniforms help with that. Also, are we really violating the first amendment with this? They are free to wear whatever they want outside of school. Many government institutions have dress codes for grownups, is that a violation? We dont allow people to drink until they are 21. We dont allow them to vote until they are 18. We dont allow kids to drive until they are 16. There are many policies for kids, that are out there to help them, and preserve society. I see this issue almost like the drinking age. If kids were taught by their parents from an early age to respect alcohol, then they would not need such a law. However, parents dont, so the law is in place.

    Some may say that school uniforms stymy (spelling) the students ability to be creative. Thats ok, but we want to direct this creativity to more meaningful things like science and math, where American students are underachieving.

    Also, considering what is in American culture, especially in the inner cities with gangsta rap, discipline is definately a good thing.

    I always remember what my father says.

    Dress for success. That applies to everyone.

    As for students of different cultures or religions like islam, they are conservative dressers anyways. We can easily accomodate a headscarf or turbin.


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