In the last several years, New Jersey school district attempts to reopen the uniform debate or instate uniform policies have been met with strong parental opposition. Bayonne parents filed suit over a uniform policy that requires students to wear navy tops and khaki bottoms, citing First Amendment freedom of speech protections, but a judge ruled in favor of the district in 2007. Parents in Clifton have protested uniforms twice in the last few years, arguing with both free speech and cost concerns, and managing to defeat proposals in 2009.
This year, however, Hoboken has instituted a uniform policy for all seventh through twelfth graders, and parents have remained quiet. Superintendent of Schools Mark Toback commented that the “goal here is to make the focus on academics more pronounced than the focus on clothing” as well as “to avoid any loss of instructional time while maintaining a good teaching and learning environment.” For this reason, flouters of the dress code—which includes black or khaki slacks as well as polo shirts in red or white for high school students and black or grey for middle school students—will not face severe consequences. Students will be given a chance to change into the uniform, and in the event that they cannot, school officials will give them a pass to display throughout the day. Disciplinary action will occur after rather than during school.
Superintendent Toback gave a comprehensive list of the pros of school uniforms in his commentary, including refocusing school time on academics. He added, “Uniforms will not only take pressure off students who feel that they have to fit in by wearing certain clothes, but also save administrators and faculty from having to waste time dealing with dress code violations.” Hoboken High School Principal Robin Piccapietra also noted that in the wake of last year’s Newtown, Connecticut shooting and similar tragedies, increased emphasis is being placed on security in American schools, and uniforms make it much easier to spot trespassers.
On the other hand, the question of uniforms usually sparks dissent among parents, with many arguing that uniforms unconstitutionally infringe upon students’ freedom of speech by refusing to celebrate diversity of expression. Other parents have sued over the cost, maintaining that a requirement to purchase school uniforms violates the agreement of free public education for taxpayers’ children. Uniforms are often costly and difficult to procure, especially when they must be purchased from a particular supplier. No matter what, a uniform requirement generally means parents must purchase new clothes for their children, which many lower-income families cannot afford, potentially causing embarrassment to their children. Students with medical or religious concerns regarding the uniforms mandated by their school district may suffer discrimination as a result of their more obvious differences in appearance. Furthermore, school uniforms often play into concerns about gender stereotypes—should male students be made to wear pants and females made to wear skirts? This particular concern is becoming increasingly relevant as parents are trying to broaden their horizons by encouraging kids to embrace what they are drawn to rather than all aspects of normative culture. Finally, some students also may feel discriminated against due to discomfort caused by sizing or clothing material, which could actually become a deterrent to education and focus.
However, the Hoboken policy appears to have taken many of these concerns into consideration; Principal Piccapietra assured parents that the school would organize a website with a list of locations where the clothing included in the policy can be purchased. New Jersey also has a law on the books compelling schools with uniform requirements to first hold a public hearing and give parents plenty of time to acquire the clothing. These schools must also provide uniforms to students of families with economic difficulties and allow students with medical or religious concerns to waive their requirement.
Did You Know?
One of the main topics of discussion regarding uniforms is the question of cost. Some schools require students to wear uniforms from specific companies or customized with the school logo. Despite the estimate that uniforms cost an average of $249 per year, more and more school systems support the ideology that they are still cheaper than regular apparel. According to a survey of principals and other school leaders, published in July of 2013 by Lands’ End School Uniform alongside the National Association of Elementary School Principles (NAESP), 86 percent of participants believe uniforms are more cost-effective. Not only do leaders believe they are more affordable, but they also believe uniforms are creating a positive impact on the student body. Of those surveyed, 86 percent have seen a positive impact on peer pressure, 44 percent have seen an improvement in attendance, 79 percent have seen enhanced student safety, and 64 percent have seen an increase in student achievement.