Requiring students to wear uniforms or conform to dress codes is a practice that some private schools have used for many years to help maintain order. Recent episodes of violence in schools, however, have led to an increasing interest in bringing uniforms and more stringent dress codes into public schools as well.
Presently, no state legislature or state department of education mandates the use of student uniforms or specific dress codes. ECS research has identified 21 states and the District of Columbia that have passed policies authorizing districts or schools to require uniforms. States that have only “dress-code” policies have not gone so far as to address uniforms specifically.
According to the U.S. Department of Education’s Manual on School Uniforms, many large public school systems -- including Baltimore, Cincinnati, Dayton, Detroit, Los Angeles, Long Beach, Miami, Memphis, Milwaukee, Nashville, New Orleans, Phoenix, Seattle and St. Louis -- have schools with either voluntary or mandatory uniform policies, mostly in elementary and middle schools (http://www.ed.gov/updates/uniforms.html). In May 2000, the Philadelphia Board of Education became the first large city board to require school uniforms -- for approximately 200,000 students -- in all grades in the city’s 259 public schools.
While no long-term empirical studies have been conducted to assess the effectiveness of school uniforms or dress codes in improving student or school performance, proponents argue that the use of such policies can enhance schools’ ability to achieve their basic academic purposes. Uniforms, they say: diminish differences among socioeconomic levels, promote school spirit and improve student self-confidence and behavior. Similar positive effects from implementing a school uniform policy were cited in the U.S. Department of Education Manual of School Uniforms, disseminated in 1996 to all of the nation’s 16,000 school districts. Among the potential benefits cited were: (1) decreasing violence and theft, (2) preventing students from wearing gang-related colors to school, (3) instilling student discipline, (4) helping to resist peer pressure, (5) helping students to concentrate on academics, and (6) aiding in the recognition of intruders.
Opponents argue that uniforms: (1) do not deter student violence, (2) have not been proven to enhance academic excellence or performance, and (3) pose an economic hardship to low-income families. They also contend that such policies infringe upon student freedom of speech rights guaranteed through the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The federal courts have ruled that, within certain parameters, school officials can legally regulate students’ personal appearance. Student appearance, the courts said, can be regulated if it is vulgar, indecent, obscene, insulting or if it carries a message that encourages inappropriate behavior.
Officials also can regulate appearance if there is a reasonable basis -- such as maintaining safety or discipline -- for doing so. For instance, dress code policies adopted to combat gang activity are likely to be upheld if facts show that a gang presence that will disrupt the education process and that is a connection between the dress code and the potential for disruption (Madrid and Garcia). In applying dress policies, schools must give students advance warning (such as in a student handbook) that wearing particular clothing or jewelry will result in disciplinary action.
The uniform/dress code debate is not confined solely to students’ attire. In recent years, proposals in several states would require teachers to wear uniforms or, at a minimum, adhere to a strict dress code. Proponents of required teacher uniforms/dress codes argue that teachers are role models for their students and therefore must set a positive example through their attire. Proponents also argue that more consistency in the quality and type of teacher clothing can boost employee morale and respect for the profession. Opponents, however, claim that teacher uniforms or dress codes harm morale by treating teachers like students and that strict dress code/uniform requirements can violate rights guaranteed to teachers under the U.S. Constitution.
Court Decisions Regarding Freedom of
Speech and Student Rights
The U.S. Supreme Court has held that individuals can and do wear clothing to express ideas and opinions. The authority of public schools to regulate the types of clothing worn by its students therefore touches upon First Amendment freedom of speech rights. In its landmark 1969 decision, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District (393 U.S. 503, 21 L. Ed. 2d 731, 89 S. Ct. 733, 1969), the court struck down a school district's ban on the wearing of black armbands to protest the Vietnam War. Central to the court’s decision was the fact that the policy was “viewpoint-specific” and did not ban other clothing that expressed controversial views, including Iron Crosses, often seen as symbols of Hitler and the Nazis. This aspect of the decision is consistent with a number of later Supreme Court decisions signaling that viewpoint-specific dress restrictions violate the First Amendment.
In general, the Tinker case established the principle that, while maintenance of order and promotion of acceptable standards of classroom conduct are synonymous with ensuring an adequate education system, school officials do not have free reign to abridge students' constitutional rights. In the aftermath of Tinker, federal courts have been asked to address numerous cases involving school uniform and dress code policies. In some cases, these cases have narrowed the application of First Amendment protections to student dress.
The most recent case was decided in March 2001 when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit issued a ruling regarding a Kentucky high school’s dress code (Castorina v. Madison County School Board, 246 F.3d 536, U.S. Ct. App. 6th Circuit). The court indicated that several criteria were crucial in determining whether school policy interferes with student rights under the Constitution. Those criteria include:
1. If the school policy appears to be viewpoint specific (as in the Tinker case), the courts will apply a higher level of scrutiny to a school’s proposed regulation.
2. If the disputed clothing is obscene, vulgar or worn in a manner that disrupts school activity or causes unrest during the school day, the courts will allow school districts more discretion in prohibiting the clothing.
3. If the student speech/dress could be considered to be “school-sponsored,” the courts will allow school districts more discretion in prohibiting the clothing. For instance, school officials could regulate school-sponsored activities such as publications, theatrical productions and other conduct related to the school's curriculum if their actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.
The Supreme Court has not yet addressed the issue of school uniforms per se. As a result, this issue is a matter of first impression for all circuit courts of appeals and most federal and state courts. In the most recent case, decided in January 2001, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upheld the constitutionality of a mandatory public school uniform policy in a Louisiana school district (Canady v. Bossier Parish School Board, 240 F.3d 437, U.S. Ct. App. 6th Circuit). The court held that, “the school board's uniform policy will pass constitutional scrutiny if it furthers an important or substantial government interest; if the interest is unrelated to the suppression of student expression; and if the incidental restrictions on First Amendment activities are no more than is necessary to facilitate that interest.”
The court found that “improving the educational process” (as evidenced by the school district’s assertion that the uniform policy reduced disciplinary problems) was an important and substantial government interest. In upholding the imposition of mandatory uniforms, the court noted that the school’s policy was “viewpoint-neutral” and that students still could express themselves through other mediums during the school day.
References: Madrid, Max J. and Garcia, Elizabeth A. (1999). Student Dress Codes: Constitutional Requirements and Policy Suggestions. Modrall, Sperling, Roehl, Harris & Sisk, P.A. Retrieved from the World Wide Web.