The History of School Dress Code

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The use of school uniforms dress code in the U.S. started in the early 1900's for parochial and private schools (Meleen, n.d.). In 1969, the US Supreme Court made a decision that both uniform proponents and opponents used to support their arguments. Specifically, in Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent Community School case, students in the Des Moines public schools were suspended for wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War (Pulliam & VanPatten, 2013, p. 318). Therefore, the Court considered whether a school policy banning the wearing of armbands by students in protest of the Vietnam War violated the students' freedom of expression. For this case, the Court ruled 7-2 that schools could not restrain students' freedom of expression as long as the students' choices were "not disruptive and did not impinge upon the rights of others (Background of the Issue - School Uniforms, 2018).

Specifically, public school administrators may only regulate expression when there is evidence that the regulations are "necessary to avoid material and substantial interference with schoolwork or discipline (Wilson, 1998). the actual wording of a dress code can be significant to the court in determining its legality (Wilson, 1998). If the Court interprets the wording of the rule to inhibit behaviors that are considered disruptive or interfering with the educational process or threaten the safety of other students, the school administrators' decision will be given great support. However, if the regulation is meant to express a school's prejudice that is not related to the educational mission of the school, the Court is unlikely to defend such a regulation.

Therefore, the Supreme Court agreed with the students and held that they had been suspended in violation of their rights. The Court found that First Amendment rights applied in all situations in which students seeked to freely express themselves on the school campus, whether in the cafeteria, in hallways, or during extra-curricular activities (Wilson, 1998). As a result, school uniform opponents later depended on this decision to reason that students' choice of what to wear is protected by the Free Speech Clause in the First Amendment of the US Constitution. On the other hand, school uniform proponents cite a passage in Tinker case'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 (Background of the Issue - School Uniforms, 2018).

In 1987, the first US public schools known to implement uniform policies were in Maryland and Washington, DC, with Cherry Hill Elementary School in Baltimore, MD (Background of the Issue - School Uniforms, 2018). In fact, 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. With the implementation of school uniform, school officials and other advocates of the new uniform policies noticed improvements in students' "frame of mind" and stated that uniforms had sharply reduced discipline problems (Background of the Issue - School Uniforms, 2018). They also reported that uniforms had already reduced the concern of students who wore expensive designer clothing when going to school.

By the fall of 1988, 39 public elementary schools and two public junior high schools in Washington, DC, had established mandatory uniform polices; after that, the school uniform policy was spreaded to other states, including Connecticut and New Jersey, especially in urban schools with mainly low income and minority students (Background of the Issue - School Uniforms, 2018).

In 1993, the Will Rogers Middle School in Long Beach, California, instituted a uniform dress code. The school had been concerned with graffiti and students in gang style clothing. In addition, test scores were low, and suspensions were excessive. In order to improve the quality of education for Will Rogers students, parents and faculty voted to implement the uniform policy. As the policy was applied, the teachers noticed a different attitude in the school; the students were calmer and more polite (Wilson, 1998). Students admitted their lives were easier as they did not have to worry about what they would wear to school. As a result, in Long Beach's first year with uniforms, there were a decrease in suspension of 32 %, and a 36% drop in crime (Wilson, 1998). At the city's high school, where uniform policies were not implemented, rate of crime showed no decline.

As a matter of fact, before uniform policies were introduced, Rogers ranked 14th out of 19 district schools on a statewide algebra test. However, after the implementation of the school uniform policy, Rogers jumped to fourth. In 1994, school uniforms began to grow in popularity among public schools (Meleen, n.d.).

After this year, several lower courts have made rulings related to school uniforms, often favoring uniform proponents. For example, in a 1995 case, Bivens by Green v. Albuquerque Public Schools, a federal district judge ruled that the desire to wear "sagging pants" was prohibited by the school dress code did not constitute freedom of expression because it did not convey a "message," and it does not represent an ethnic identity. In fact, 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 (Background of the Issue - School Uniforms, 2018). On the other hand, 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, and such intentional identification clearly must involve freedom of expression (Background of the Issue - School Uniforms, 2018).
The push for school uniforms started in 1996 when the U.S. Department of Education insisted the adoption of school uniforms as a way for reducing school violence.

Also, in his State of the Union Address, President Bill Clinton stressed the significance and rights of school systems across America to implement a mandatory school uniform policy. Particularly, on Jan. 3, 1996, President Bill Clinton told Congress during his State of the Union speech, "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 (Underwood, 2018). Again, 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. In July 1998, President Clinton continued his campaign of school uniforms with a speech at the annual convention of the American Federation of Teachers, demonstrating that uniforms help children "feel free" and reduce crime and violence.
In 1999, 12 % public schools mandate a school uniform policy (School Uniforms Timeline, n.d.). In 2001, there was a case ruled in favor of the school uniform policy. Particularly, in Canady v. Bossier Parish School Board, the school uniform policy allowed for two colors of polo or button-down shirts and navy or khaki bottoms. When parents challenged the policy as a violation of their children's right to expression, the court found that although dress could be a form of expression protected by the First Amendment, the policy could be upheld if it furthered an important or substantial government interest, the interest was unrelated to the suppression of student expressions, and the restrictions on the speech were no more than necessary to further the state interest (Underwood, 2018).

The court found that the policy was consistent with the state's interest of improving education and that it was not established as an attempt to restrain any particular viewpoint or message. The restrictions were neutral and reasonable on the students' speech; therefore, the policy was upheld (Underwood, 2018).

At the end of the 2005-2006 school year, it was reported that 55 percent of the school systems had a very strict dress code. In fact, this was an increase of 47 percent compared to the 1999-2000 reports. In 2006, school uniforms were on the rise in public schools. As of 2008, according to the Education Commission of the States, 22 states specifically authorized schools to establish dress codes or uniform policies (School Uniforms Timeline, n.d.). From 1999“2000 to 2013“14, the percentage of public schools reporting that they required students to wear uniforms increased from 12 to 20 percent. Most recently, in the 2015“16 school year, 21 percent of public schools reported they required students to wear uniforms (The NCES Fast Facts, n.d.).

The most recent case relating to dress code was Frudden v. Pilling in 2017. Specifically, a Nevada elementary school adopted a mandatory uniform policy, requiring students to wear only red or navy polo shirts and tan or khaki bottoms (Underwood, 2018). At first, there was no problem. However, when the school required that all shirts bear the school logo and the motto Tomorrow's Leaders, one family objected to the motto's implicit messages, which seemed to argue that leadership should be celebrated and that the school is likely to produce leaders. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has had difficulty with this case, hearing it two times.

In the most recent case, the court found the school did not have a sufficient state interest in requiring the motto to be worn, therefore, the court ruled in favor of the family (Underwood, 2018).
Dress codes and school uniforms have been controversial issues for several years in the United States. There have been a lot of arguments of having dress code or uniform policies in schools. Most schools and parents would agree that the main reason for children to go to school is to learn at their best potential. In fact, to ensure that children are able to succeed in school, outside distractions such as crime and other violent activities should be reduced. Generally, school violence is a problem in many schools today; therefore, safety is an essential factor of any learning environment.

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The History of School Dress Code. (2019, Jul 09). Retrieved July 18, 2024 , from

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