School Uniforms: Still a Good Idea

Even though my advocacy for school uniforms caused a major career snag when I was a middle school principal in Moreland School District nearly 15 years ago, I am still a strong and passionate proponent.  Placing an emphasis on the proper tone for learning while reducing discipline problems are two outcomes of an effective uniform policy. I believe we need a renewed county conversation about the efficacy of school uniforms, particularly for our students in middle school. Let me explain.

I am serving my second voluntary term on the San Jose Arena Authority Board. Our monthly meeting at the end of August was short and effective, yet at the end of the meeting one of my fellow members stated that her daughter’s middle school prohibits any students from wearing San Jose Shark’s gear due to its association with gangs. That news was distressing to her daughter entering middle school, since she is a fan of the Shark’s and owns some Sharks-gear wardrobe items.

Knowing I am an educator and Santa Clara County Office of Education Board member, she asked if the policy made sense to me. I told her I don’t know enough to form an opinion one way or another, but that I would contact the superintendent of the middle school and check out the reasoning behind the policy.

Within 48 hours, I contacted the superintendent (a former colleague), and forwarded the e-mail from my Arena Authority comrade. The superintendent, being the outstanding leader he is, immediately contacted the principal and assistant principal and after some discussion they decided to rescind the ban on Shark’s gear for 2009-10 unless there was a future problem. He noted further that the school administration would contact the parent directly and inform her of the new decision. 

It appeared to be a win-win situation for all. I was delighted with the quick resolution to the issue—until my Santa Clara County Board meeting on last Wednesday evening. Agenda Item 10A was a report to the County Board on Gang Awareness and Prevention in San Jose. The report was requested by the Board of Education several months prior.

The agenda item was presented to us by Assistant District Attorney Marc Buller and two members of his staff. The information in the report was sobering.

Approximately 1,329 youth gang-related incidents occurred in San Jose in 2008. There are 5,833 validated gang members (many more non-validated gang associates) with 160 validated gangs in San Jose and 200 in Santa Clara County. Sixty-one percent of gang-related crimes in San Jose were committed by those 19 years and younger, and 48 percent were victims 19 years and younger.

Here is the rub. The fourth slide in the PowerPoint presentation mentioned the gang known as the Norteños. It pointed out that Norteños usually wear red or maroon colors. Yet DA Buller said there is a recent trend for some Norteños to wear San Jose Sharks teal.

I assert that it is impossible for school or district staff to stay ahead of the every changing trends that gangs use for identification. Therefore, we make some situations in schools unsafe for the students and staff that we need to protect from harm.

Life is not as simple as it was when San Jose in 1950 had 95,000 residents. Gangs have been a growing issue in San Jose since 1968. Their propensity for violence must be taken seriously. Principals and school boards must keep their staff and students safe. Allowing students to wear what they wish in a vaguely enforced dress code is not good enough in these times, even though many of my liberal friends would argue that students’ freedom of self-expression is one of the most important elements of our public school system. 

I would argue to the contrary. School uniforms promote modesty, focus on learning, egalitarian philosophy, order, and a reduction of bullying. In order to spot strangers on campus we must be able to identify them quickly and school uniforms are a great tool to do just that.

In 1996 President Clinton said, “ If it means…our young people will learn to evaluate themselves by what they are on the inside, instead of what they’re wearing on the outside, then our public schools should be able to require their students to wear uniforms.”

Many countries have mandatory uniform policies in 2009 and several are based on the British system. School uniforms were introduced in the UK by King Henry VIII almost 500 years ago. In those times blue was the color due to the inexpensiveness of the dye and was a way to inculcate humility into all school children.  I think humility for all school children is a good thing. Blue might not be the color of choice today since Sureños use blue for identification, but I think the discussion relative to school uniforms in middle schools must begin today.

Joseph Di Salvo is a member of the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s Board of Trustees. He is a San Jose native. His columns reflect his personal opinion.

45 Comments

  1. “School uniforms promote modesty, focus on learning, egalitarian philosophy, order, and a reduction of bullying.”

    Joe – Are you saying that these issues do not come up in schools with mandatory uniform policies? Somehow, I doubt that students who wear school uniforms are the modest, learning-focused, egalitarian non-bullying young philosophers that you suggest. But, they are all dressed the same.

    It’s also interesting how you point out the subjective nature of these rules. If an organization (Sharks) has political clout (like a County Board of Education member who also sits on the Arena Authority) it is able to get the rules bent, or even changed with a simple phone call. This, despite the evidence you cite that some gang members wear Shark’s teal. (Finfan must be extra frustrated to hear this news!) So, Joe, which master will you serve on this issue?

    School uniforms are not necessarily a bad thing, but let’s not overstate their role.

    Also Joe, the next time the Sharks are unhappy about school uniform policies, the call to the Superintendent should come from someone in the Shark’s office, not a member of the County Board of Education who also just happens to sit on the Arena Authority! If that ain’t a conflict of interest, then I was not eddukated in Kalifornya publick skols.

    • “School uniforms promote modesty, focus on learning, egalitarian philosophy, order, and a reduction of bullying.”

      I would love for you to tell us where exactly in this quote Joe is saying that these issues do not come up in schools with mandatory uniform policies.

  2. Proposing school uniforms at this time would be seen by the conservative lunatic fringe as trying to force Godless socialism on our children by depriving them of their individuality.

    • My school has a strict uniform policy.  You have to wear a white button down oxford shirt, khaki dress pants, and a black leather belt.

  3. I agree that by enforcing uniforms, we restrict our students freedom of expression. Yet, I also agree that by enforcing uniforms, we create a better sense of unity, a safer environment, and a stronger focus on school and learning, rather than judging each other’s outer appearances. I agree it is important to allow students freedom of expression, but when I take a look at the bigger picture, I feel it is much more important we “equalize” our students. If they want the freedom to express themselves, they have the opportunity to after school, on the weekends, summer break, spring break, etc.
    School is a formal place. Students are there to learn. When students are given too much freedom, school is no longer taken seriously. It becomes a competitive environment with a race to see who can afford the newest trends, who is up to date, who is the most popular. Students prey on each other talking about who is more scandalously dressed, wearing an unattractive outfit, or wearing too much makeup. With enforced uniform regulations, all students will be brought to a level ground, and their attention focused on school rather than each other.

  4. No matter what the ‘benefits’ are, uniforms just plain don’t pass a common sense test.

    School is about education. Clothing has little effect on education, safety, or well-being.

    It’s time we start limiting administrative powers to what is needed to do one’s job. Schools are for teaching, not social experimentation. Schools should not be in the clothing business any more than the military should be in the nation-building business.

    • Clothing DOES have a great effect on education, safety, and well-being. Clothing (or lack thereof) can be a huge distraction from the learning process. Girls are developing earlier and wearing more revealing clothes than ever before. Also, expression through clothing can be time-consuming and costly. Kids spend hours at the mall and hours trying to decide what to wear each day. If they spent half the time on their studies that they spend on clothes, the effects of uniforms on education would be significant.

      That is common sense.

      • Now you’re not making sense.  Kids are still going to spend hours at the mall to find casual clothes to wear after school and on weekends, which will still take time away from their studies.  And, I just recently graduated from high school.  I can say that I never took that long to get ready in the morning, because I had the common sense to lay my clothes out the night before, like most other kids.  Learn to think before you post things on the internet.

  5. “School uniforms were introduced in the UK by King Henry VIII almost 500 years ago.”

    The essential silliness of Joe DiSalvo’s argument is exposed by his reference to Henry VIII who brought so many initiatives to his reign—let’s see, beheading unwanted wives & betraying his faith come to mind as well as his school uniform initiative.

    Banning certain colors during school hours is enough. Establishing actual school uniforms is a step too far. Any uniform ever created can be tarted up or ganged down to carry a variety of meanings or hostilities.

  6. Well, I do think school uniforms are a good idea. But have you thought about gang members finding other ways to show they are in a a gang? I mean they may wear something other than clothes to show which gang they are in. People are very creative these days and I am sure they will come up with something to show their gang related status. I think uniforms may cut back on gang related issues but will not resolve the problem.

  7. I highly support uniforms as well. I had the experience of going to two different middle schools, one required uniforms and the other did not. Reflecting on both experiences, I feel that uniforms allowed me to focus more on the purpose of going to school and that is to get an education.

    However important expressing oneself through clothing may be, it takes away from what the focus should be at school. We are not our clothes. Our clothes do not make us the person we are. It gives off an image we want others to perceive us but it should not represent all that we are. Children, above all, should not have to worry about this or believe that we are only individuals through the use of clothing. Something so avoidable as clothing issues can reduce opportunities of unnecessary situations from arising.

  8. I attended public school until high school, when I enrolled in an all-girls Catholic school. Uniforms were required, and I couldn’t have been happier. Sure, at first it was sort of a drag, but it was a great way to level the socioeconomic playing field. It was a private school, and while there were girls from wealthy families, girls on work study programs, and girls like myself, whose parents made sacrifices to send me there, we were all equals sitting in our plaid skirts. That is, until you walked into the parking lot….

    I often find myself longing for the days of my school uniform when I have to decide what to wear to work in the morning!

  9. Well, I agree with Tiffany’s comment that uniforms are a good idea. I study elementary school in Latin America and school uniforms were mandatory. I never felt that the uniform was taking away my individuality, all human beings are unique and a uniform can’t take that away. I also believe that uniforms won’t stop all gang related issues in schools but it will probably help to minimize the problem and that is something positive. I understand that some students and parents may think that uniforms are taking away some of their freedom of expression but if we all think about it. What is more important, self expression or security? I think that school uniforms have more advantages than disadvantages for students.

  10. When I was younger, i was so glad that my school did not have uniforms.  I never wanted to get them either.  But, now, I think it is important for schools to have uniforms.  For one, they create unity.  Everyone is the same and there is no outside focus on who has the new hot item, who is the best dressed or who can’t really afford new clothes.  It is less of a distraction and the dress code would be followed more easily than would be if there were no uniforms.  I think all schools should adopt uniforms.  Students can focus more on school and not be worried about not fitting in.

  11. I completely and 100% agree with this article.  I wore uniforms K-8 and had a strict dress code in high school.  I probably did complain as a child that I had to wear them, but looking back, it was probably one of the best things that the school did.  Now that I am able to choose what to wear, I sometimes long for those days when I knew what I had to put on in the morning.  That would save me a good 10-15 minutes these days!  Also, sometimes children face ridicule and are teased for what they wear to school maybe because they wear “weird” clothing, or have worn the same article of clothing a few days in a row.  Some families cannot afford to buy their children endless amounts of clothing and therefore uniforms would help drastically there.  I really wish that they would enforce uniforms in every elementary school and even high schools. Keep pushing for it!

  12. While I do agree that a student’s freedom of self-expression is important, I feel that uniforms are necessary.  Joe, I think you make excellent arguments for school uniforms.  At any school, students feel pressure to dress like their peers, wear expensive clothing, etc.  Having gone to school in an affluent area, this was especially the case.  I know for a fact that many students cannot afford to keep up with those who are always wearing the most expensive and trendy styles.  This can be very stressful for children at any age.  Allowing students’ lives to be ruled by appearance is detrimental and school uniforms can help to eliminate this.

  13. I really feel that uniforms are beneficial!Yes, it can be hard for kids to express there style if uniforms are implemented. It reduces stress for parents and ultimately i feel it reduces stress for students. To stay up on the current trends and styles can be stressful for some students.Taking a look at the whole issue I feel uniforms are the way to go. Yes, its not as fun to wear uniforms I agree. However, reading this blog and looking back on my high school and junior high days it makes more sense to have uniforms!

  14. Joe – so, a Board of Education member stepped in to get a Principal to “rescind the ban on Shark’s gear” without understanding the gang problems? Ironic the next meeting has the details.

    Kathleen – I did not wear a uniform, and I’m also still alive. Uniforms do not protect the lives of children.

    Uniforms are useful in schools with wildly varying income levels though they cause little challenge for gangs. Khakis are a popular uniform pant, and, most gang members love the khaki.

    • You raise a very good point about khaki’s but in the end at the end of the day, no form of dress is ever going to change who we are inside. That is one of the many reasons I support uniforms.

  15. As someone who has been off and on school campuses around the bay area (as a nanny) and a future educator, I can say with absolute confidence; that enforcing school uniforms has NO drawbacks whatsoever. Not only does it keep ‘colors’ off of school grounds but the larger picture I see is creating an environment that lessens the opportunity for one student to feel inferior to another student merely because of their socioeconomic status. Also, as one other post implies that school uniforms would deprive a child of their individuality, I counter that with this; THAT IS THE ISSUE. We shouldn’t as a community, as parents or as educators allow what we see shape who we are or want to be seen as. Allowing a child to be an ‘individual’ based on what their clothing represents is exactly where our community has gone wrong. Children go to school to learn, socialize and become better people… not to become self indulgent, materialistic pre maddonnas. If self expression is an issue and it’s something you just can’t look past… there are 24 hours in a day, school takes up 8 of those hours. You do the math. There are also weekends and summer breaks. Children have ample opportunity to wear and express their ‘individualism’ off campus.

  16. When I was in middle school I had to wear my school’s polo shirts and had a dress code to follow for pants/skirts/shorts. I absolutely hated it; it’s already an awkward age for a middle schooler with the braces, changing voice for guys, growth spurts, etc. And to have to wear a huge polo shirt (I was short and small, so they did not fit me well) it made me feel even more awkward. I swore I would never support school uniforms because a kid needs to express their individuality. But, now that I am studied to be a teacher and I have had experience in the classroom as the teacher, I have begun to change my mind. Reading this is gives me one more reason to support school uniforms. A child could put on their favorite sharks shirt for school one day and get caught in an unsafe situation because of it, but they would have no idea. It is our job as teachers, school administrators, and district leaders to make sure this does not happen. It’s funny how much our views change from childhood to adulthood.

    • Though I did not have to wear school uniforms in my elementary/middle/high school years, there was much talk about it being enforced.  As a student, I did not want to be told what I could/could not wear to school.  Not only would it take away any individuality, but also would be another thing I HAD to do.  As Katie said (I am also a future teacher), I am beginning to see the positives of school uniforms.  I do not think they are necessary at the elementary level, but I feel that it would be helpful for middle schools.  The preteen years are those where students are figuring out who they are & are worried about what everyone thinks about them.  Uniforms could help break clique and gang borders & essentially make school a place that places emphasis on academics, rather than student attire.

  17. It is sad to see what our society has come to because of gang violence.  It’s unfortunate for our youth to grow up in an environment where they are given restriction after restriction, but that’s reality.  Uniforms are more about the protection and safety of our school children and it does come at their expense; however, there are other ways to express oneself.  Besides since when is wearing baggy pants that show off your boxers or a low cut, see through shirt that shows a pink, zebra pattern bra a form of expression?

  18. As an artist and someone who likes to express creativity in everything she touches, I never thought I would agree that school uniforms are a good idea.  If you were to ask my childhood or teenage self the same question, I would have definitely opposed.  However, I now find myself agreeing with the stance that school uniforms are an effective way to promote safety in schools.  In addition, school uniforms can equalize children by not allowing them to show economic or social status with clothing.  If in need of creativity, there are a million other ways to output this energy, and a truly creative kid can always find one.

  19. Although school uniforms may garauntee that all students are dressed similar, some gang colors and affiliations may still be worn. Red/blue bandannas, bracelets, and other items may often appear in these types of settings.

    Yes, I agree that the school uniforms will help protect many of the students and staff from any type of gang retaliation or violence; but at the same time – those students who are directly connected with gangs will still find a way to “show thier colors.”

  20. As a public school student I was lucky enough not to have to wear uniforms and felt strongly against them.  As I prepare to become a teacher and parent in the the near future, I am beginning to change my mind seeing the benefits definitely outweigh the disadvantages.

    As a high school student I would have aruged that uniforms take away from a student’s developing individuality, which I still believe is true.  But the obvious benefits of safety and putting the real focus on learning are more important. I agree with Talita that kids in uniforms create clicks and friends based on similar interests not similar juicy couture sweatsuits.

    I think it truly does level the socio-economic status of students and doesn’t point out which kids parents don’t have the money to keep them in style.  it also takes all the guesswork out of what to wear in the morning, eliminating wasted time and arguments with parents as to what is appropriate.

  21. This is a tough one.  On the one hand, I see the merits of mandating uniforms in all public schools because of the mentioned reasons of promoting a the idea of equity and toning down differences in socioeconomic status, however there are many problems that come to mind as well as sceptism that uniforms would serve to eliminate gang problems.  Prisons have uniforms yet gangs still manage to label and identify eachother.  I think that uniforms are a good idea for a lot of reasons, but I think it would do very little to resolve gang problems; that issue needs to be addressed by the roots. In regards the issues I have with uniforms, what kind of uniforms?  The school I went to mandated very specific types of uniforms which could only be bought at one store which had very high prices.  My mom had to spend hundreds of dollars every year just to make sure I had enough uniforms to wear that fit me.  I new needed uniform sweaters and jackets and skirts on top of my regular clothes!  Another issue that comes to mind is how to enforce it?  What happens if a student comes to school without the correct clothing?

  22. Joseph,
    My apologies for changing the topic but Fin Fan raised a point on Raj’s post that concerns me. What is the school’s policy on allowing groups, or visitors in the classroom? Do parents get notified prior to visitors coming in so that they can decide if they want their children exposed to said group, or visitor?

    • Kathleen,

      Good question. In some cases parents are notified of groups or visitors to classrooms and usually a negative permission note is used (if not returned excluding student then it is assumed it is okay to have students participate) if the topic of presentation is deemed controversial.  In the cases of mandated information to students e.g. HIV, family life etc. a positive permission slip is used that must be returned with parent signature for child to participate.  For large school assemblies with inspirational type speakers the event is usually noted in principal newsletters or electronic notification no permission slip is required.

      Some districts have Board policy or administrative regulations that address required practice relative to your question. 

      Joseph Di Salvo

      • Thank you so much Joseph. I have some concerns about this as I know others do. I wouldn’t want my children exposed to any class visitor, or group without my consent, or knowledge.

    • I was wondering this too….Raj and his group have no business being on campus and interacting with students, if that is what they did.

  23. I agree that students need to learn to evaluate themselves from the inside, rather from the outside.  Throughout my whole elementary and secondary school years the schools I attended had mandatory uniform policies.  The peer pressure of what to wear to fit in was totally eliminated.  Clicks that were formed were not solely based on the way you looked but also by your interests.  There were days where we were allowed to wear civil clothes, and on those days SES and family income were apparent.  I feel that it rather humiliated some students rather than giving them freedom of expression.

    I also agree that if it helps students to be safe from gang related activities, then school uniform policies should strongly be considered.

  24. I have never been a fan for the idea of school uniforms, although in reading about it in the article and listening to people experiences of them I have altered my opinion a bit. Before I thought of school uniforms as a medium to restrict kids. I have always been a free spirit and enjoyed being free to wear whatever, including mis/matching clothes. I have never thought that there should be complete freedom for whatever children want to wear, I do not like the idea of children wearing revealing or gang-affiliated clothing, there should be some dress code in place. My experience at Saint Francis high school and their dress code was not enjoyable for me. I did not like the change of free dress (blue jeans) to restricted attire.

    I have always had an expectation for what teachers should wear. I think they should dress professionally to give children a role model. I was wrong to not have applied this to the children as well. I think uniforms would be a great way to ensure that education is the goal of the students time at school. It is not about addressing individuality. I agree that time spent figuring out what to wear and competition over fashion could be happily eliminated with uniforms. I’m not sure what uniforms have to do with humility, but if that works I am a strong proponent of that. I wander how clicks work in schools with dress code. What lines do they form along?

  25. Why is the Santa Clara County Board of Education about to vote for providing management level Health Benefits to its Board Members? Wouldn’t this money better be spent on our kids or teachers?
    This despite a grand jury finding highlighted in that same blog by Mr. DiSalvo.

  26. Joseph,

    I have to say that my time in San Jose has put me on the fence when it comes to this issue.  I grew up in a small town in Canada, and the only kids that I ever knew that wore uniforms were at the Catholic schools.  We didn’t have gangs in my town, and the only type of violence was a fist fight.  Growing up in this environment, I’ve always felt that school uniforms infringe on a student’s individuality.

    About 2 years ago I came to the U.S. and I am shocked at the problems school districts face with gangs, drugs, weapons, violence and even murder.  With these sorts of threats, I think that we should all be open to any ideas that will help keep our children safe.  No solution is going to be perfect, neither is every politician, teacher, parent and child going to agree upon the same path of action.  What I am sure that everyone agrees upon is that no one wants to become another victim of violence.

  27. i think school uniforms are not an good idea. i think if schools required students to have uniforms then people wouldn’t be able to express who they are!

    i also think that if schools didn’t require school uniforms then the children that can’t afford to buy the newest fad would be harassed or embarrassed.

  28. this is a good idea. i gree with it 101% i wore schooluiform 9 years. school uniforms identify you which school you come from so that maybe when you are lost the people can find you and know where you are form ad they tke you to your school and your teacher can take care of you or take you to your home. so uniforms are considered like identity cards.

  29. Can we have uniforms already?

    I totally agree with uniforms will stop bullying and it would be nice that people don’t judge other people by what clothes they wear.

  30. Great article, but where are the sources for the number of teen gang members and percentages.  I am currently doing research on the subject.