The National Center for Education Statistics reports that between the 2003-2004 and 2011-2012 school years, student uniform requirements grew from 13 to 19 percent among reporting schools. Because test scores and student safety are at stake, this upswing in the popularity of school dress codes has been much discussed by politicians, parents, students and academics. Both those for and against present strong arguments related to constitutional freedoms, classroom violence, socioeconomic pressures and lasting effects on students.
Pro: Reducing Violence
Estimates vary widely, but evidence suggests that as many as 100,000 guns are brought to schools every day, or over 1 million per year. Bullying, sexual harassment, assault and gang violence are issues, as well, even when guns are not involved. Studies have shown that dress codes lead to a drop in violence in schools; for example, in the Long Beach, California, school system, assault with a deadly weapon decreased by 50 percent and sex offenses decreased by 74 percent just two years after a grades K through 8 dress code was introduced.
Con: Masking True Problems
Between bullying, violence, low literacy rates and high dropout rates, schools have a hefty range of problems to contend with. While dress codes seem to ameliorate these issues, critics argue that school uniforms are merely a Band-Aid over the problem, one that does nothing to fix the root causes. Additionally, critics note that many of the studies cited in support of dress codes reducing violence are misleading, since most studies don’t transparently state that many factors are involved, including anti-violence reforms not related to uniforms.
Pro: Bolstering Academic Achievement
High school students face incredible pressure to achieve as competition for college spots and jobs continues to mount. Proponents of dress codes note that when students don’t have to worry about how they look and whether they fit in with their peers, they can more easily focus on their studies, which can lead to increased academic success and reduced stress. Some argue that school uniforms decrease tardiness, as well, since students are not faced with the hassle of choosing clothing in the mornings.
Con: Limiting Self-Expression and Individual Freedoms
Academic achievement is only one factor leading to success in the “real world” beyond high school. Colleges and companies value creativity and adaptability, and critics of dress codes note that it is exactly the chance to learn these skills that dress codes take away. As self-expression goes down, in other words, conformity in thinking goes up, and students’ futures suffer. Dress codes may also be a violation of students’ rights to self-expression given by the First Amendment, although courts of all levels are divided on whether this is so.
Pro: Reducing the Obviousness of Disparity
Bullying, theft and violence in schools are often a function of socioeconomic disparity. Those in favor of dress codes note that a uniform policy reduces the problems caused when students fall into obvious “haves” and “have-nots”; since students wear neither designer clothing nor worn-out hand-me-downs, targeting for bullying and theft is more difficult. Theft, in particular, is managed as students do not carry as many expensive goods to school.
Con: Causing Self-Image to Suffer
When students do not view themselves as attractive or worthy, a host of problems can occur: depression, self-injury, even suicide. Dress codes force students into a cookie-cutter look, one that some students may find uncomfortable or not right for their bodies, potentially leading to a negative self-image. Additionally, critics note that students from low-income families are still aware of their “status” among their peers, since they often have fewer uniforms that become shabby more quickly, negatively affecting their self-image.
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