School Violence: Causes and The Impact of Uniforms

“Every year, 3 million young people in the United States fall victim to crimes at school. Almost 2 million of these incidents involve violence.”1 As early as the 1950’s and 1960’s, the idea of school uniforms was batted around as a possible solution to “juvenile delinquency” in public schools.2 In the late 1980’s, uniforms began to gain momentum as a way to stem violence in school as designer clothing gave students a reason to attack each other. Almost weekly, late night news reports aired stories about students being beaten for their name brand Nike shoes or Gucci leather jackets and purses. Parents and educators increased their demands for uniforms during the 90’s as gang violence became more institutional and widespread.

Fifty years ago our children were extremely limited in how they could dress in the school house. Teachers and parents were very concerned and proactive in ensuring that students were appropriately dressed for their education. Our fathers’ generation required males to cut their hair so that it did not touch the collars of their shirts. Boys wore shirts that prevented them from flaunting their muscles. No one knew what kind of underwear the boys were wearing unless they were seen changing into their gym clothes in the locker room. Girls’ skirts could not be any shorter than their knees. They rarely wore dresses and never allowed their cleavage to be displayed for public consumption. Tight, form-fitted clothing was taboo. It was much more conservative and, as a result, school violence was virtually non-existent.6

Today’s children are free to choose just about anything they want to wear to school. It’s not uncommon to see boys and girls with exotically colored hair, multiple body piercings, and heavy makeup. Clothing defines the individual. Along with the continuing relaxation of clothing standards, schools are increasingly expected to take greater roles in educating and raising our children. Parents are moving away from their responsibilities in raising children that will respect authority.

In 1996, President William J. Clinton challenged schools to teach more “character education” in their classrooms. He also made the issue of uniforms a specific Presidential issue. “…if 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,” Clinton said during his State of the Union address.3 Presidents don’t normally speak in terms so precise during these addresses. Rather, they tend to use broad generalities when addressing the nation.

Our children are under more pressure to wear brand name clothing now than ever before. Clothing has become a central issue in schools whether we want to believe it or not. As the years go on, more and more advertisements targeting children have attempted to convince them that they need designer clothing. As a matter of fact, based upon personal observation there are fewer commercials and ads for school supplies than school clothing. With celebrity role models increasingly touting their personal lines of clothing, the trend will likely continue.

The reasons both for and against uniforms are about as varied as the number of schools themselves. Some claim that uniforms will improve student behavior. Some claim that uniforms violate students’ First Amendment rights to free speech and expression. Yet others claim that uniforms stifle individuality and are meant to be another form of control, while some believe that uniforms will foster more individuality and creativity in finding ways to stand out.

In Prince George’s County, Maryland alone, one hundred thirty-one schools have reverted to a mandatory school uniform policy with another seven schools adopting a “voluntary” program of school uniforms. At a recent Board of Education meeting to discuss various issues affecting schools, the topic of uniforms was at the forefront. Debate was very heated and seemed to be divided along adult and student lines. Students spoke out against uniforms almost unanimously, while parents and teachers were mostly in favor of it. There were, however, some parents who were strongly against uniforms. The main reasons for their disapproval of uniforms were that it takes away their child’s individuality and will cost them too much money.

School uniforms are not unique to the United States. I grew up as a Navy brat and attended school in many states and countries. I attended school in Japan for four years where you can’t find a school that didn’t have uniforms. Possibly as a result, Japan enjoys one of the lowest school violence levels in the world. In the UK, uniforms have been a part of school life for more than a century. Lately, strong debate has convinced some schools to abandon their school uniform policies.

Uniforms tend to cost more than normal clothing would cost. This price increase in school clothing affects families differently depending on their social status and tends to sway some parents against supporting the issue. Here in Maryland, uniforms tend to be expensive. Using the baseline of a shirt, slacks, and shoes I compared how much it would cost on average to purchase these items at a department store versus the local uniform outfitter. The average price of one day’s non-uniform clothing from a department store is $72 for a white shirt, slacks and shoes. The same white shirt, slacks and shoes for a school uniform would cost $98 if purchased at a specialty uniform outlet.

Violence in schools was largely hidden from the public conscious as a serious issue until the Columbine, Colorado school shooting in 1999. Since then, adolescents have committed copycat shootings and similar violence all over America. School violence isn’t something that most students will ever have to deal with personally. Of the 48 students from eight different schools in my local area, only seven had personally been involved in some sort of in school or near school violence. Oddly enough, this is directly in line with a 1999 study by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) which concluded that 14% of students had been involved in a fight.4

As the number of schools requiring uniforms has increased, the instances of violence in schools have decreased. Unfortunately, no one has yet to make a direct connection between the two. According to the US Department of Education, violence in schools has been cut in half since 1992. In 2005, the latest year figures are available, violence was at its lowest level in the past 13 years.5 The report states that only 8% of students reported being bullied in school.

Professional opinions run the gamut about the causes of this reduction in school violence. Some credit more student involvement and character training that every US school must include in its curriculum. Others believe that more law enforcement presence in the schools is the cause. When I asked 15 teachers if they thought that uniforms deserved the praise for a decrease in violence in their school, 9 told me yes, while only 5 said no. The remaining teacher wasn’t sure. I also spoke with parents and asked for their opinions on this issue. Of the 22 parents I spoke with, 16 told me that uniforms were the answer to this problem. They believe that violence can only be beaten through education at school and in the home.

Schools with high instances of parental involvement in their children’s education enjoy a lower level of school violence. Parents are the single largest factor in preventing violence in schools with or without uniforms. It’s important that parents support the educational system and teach children by example and by enforcing school rules. They can also talk with their children about how to avoid and prevent violent behavior. When students, teachers, and parents participate in their communities and local schools in a violence prevention initiative, schools are more than 30% safer. 7

After studying the facts and conducting my own polling and research at nearby schools, one can easily come to the conclusion that while uniforms may alleviate some of the violence that seems to plague our educational system, it is not the be-all-end-all. Educators must continue to pursue other strategies in combating this problem. Schools with full time security and/or law enforcement presence tended to have a lower rate of violence than the ones void of it. Many teachers believe that character training, a direct result of President Clinton’s address, seems to be helping as well. School uniforms definitely haven’t been shown to increase violence in schools, which is never a bad thing.

1. W.M. Keck Foundation; The Challenge of School Violence; http://www.crf-usa.org/violence/school.html
2. Anderson, Wendell; College of Education, University of Oregon; School Dress Codes and Uniform Policies; http://eric.uoregon.edu/publications/policy_reports/dress_codes/intro.html
3. Clinton, William J.; State of the Union Address; January 23, 2006; http://clinton2.nara.gov/WH/New/other/sotu.html
4. Center For Disease Control; Just the Facts: Violent Behavior at School; http://www.cdc.gov/ncipc/fact_book/23_School_Violence.htm
5. US Department of Education; Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2005; http://www.ed.gov/news/pressreleases/2005/11/11202005.html
6. Eppinger, Russell E.; Widener University; School Uniforms: Does What Students Wear Really Make A Difference? 9 March 2001; http://muse.widener.edu/~egrozyck/EDControversy/Eppinger.html
7. National Crime Prevention Counsel; http://www.pta.org/archive_article_details_1117811527812.html

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