School Uniforms in the United States

In the United States, dress codes were commonly enforced in schools in the 1950s (girls, prohibited from wearing pants, had to wear skirts or dresses). During the 1960s, blue jeans, black leather jackets, and other accoutrements associated with gangs were prohibited among boys (and, of course, girls as well). By the 1980s, problems with gang violence led to dress codes that attempted to do away with gang colors. Dress codes have routinely been used to prohibit clothes with threatening language, insulting racial slurs, and alcohol or drug-related messages. They have also been used to ban miniskirts, tube tops, halter tops, and see-through clothing (such restrictions raise an interesting gender issue; some note that they unfairly discriminate against women since male students supposedly face less bodily regulation). Uniform policies began to spread in the late 1980s and then steadily increased throughout the 1990s. Though parochial and private schools have a long history of mandating school uniforms, the first public-school system to require uniforms, California's Long Beach Unified School District, has become a model for uniform policies in other places. Begun in 1994, this program involves about 60,000 elementary and middle school students.

An important symbolic push for school uniforms came in January 1996, when President Clinton endorsed their use during his State of the Union Address. One month later, the National Association of Secondary School Principals also endorsed them. Then, shortly after the presidential endorsement, the U.S. Department of Education sent a manual, "School Uniforms: Where They Are and Why They Work," to all 16,000 school districts. The manual listed examples of model programs and explained what are perceived to be the benefits of school uniforms, such as improved discipline and a decrease in violence and gang activity.

By 2000, thirty-seven states had passed laws empowering local school districts to establish their own uniform policies, while numerous local authorities have instituted their own policies. Definite figures are hard to come by, but estimates of public schools that have adopted uniform policies range from 8 to 15 percent of American schools. Other estimates are even larger, and claim that nearly half of the large urban school systems in the U.S. have adopted school uniform policies for some or even all of their schools.

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