Dressing for Success?

Does What Students Wear to School Really Matter?

Today's Family Magazine, August issue

Deanna R. Adams

Was it really that long ago when female students were forbidden to wear pants to school? That teachers would regularly measure girls’ skirts for proper length? And if a boy’s hair brushed over their collar, they were suspended?

While it may not seem like it to those who graduated in the ’70s, one drive past a public school these days, and the reminder that times have changed is just one student away. Children are now allowed much more diversity in their manner of dress. But are some kids taking this freedom of expression too far? Rock shirts, ripped jeans, and sneakers are a common sight in today’s classroom. But that’s mild compared to students who dare to bare, such as boys wearing low-slung baggy pants that reveal boxer shorts, and girls’ with budding breasts bulging out of short, tight spandex tops.  

As another school year approaches, the issue, and often heated debate, on how children, particularly teens, should dress for school has once again become a topic of conversation among administrators and parents alike. Part of the renewed local interest in the school dress code is due to the change in policy implemented by Cleveland schools last year. The Cleveland Metropolitan School District has made it mandatory for children in grades Kindergarten through 8th grade to wear standardized uniforms, and that high school students must adhere to stricter dress code regulations. This means no tops showing cleavage, no baggy pants, and no gang-related clothing.

And many schools across the nation are following suit. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 47% of public schools have adopted a stricter dress code and 12% now require the wearing of school uniforms. Some of the benefits, proponents say, is that when children dress the same, it creates school unity, is cost effective for parents, and provides a neutral learning environment.

 Wendy Delisio, whose two daughters, ages 15 and 17, attend Mentor High School, think uniforms could make things easier for all involved. “I think it’s a good idea,” she says. “It would make everyone equal, so there’d be less competition and emphasis on fashion, particularly with girls. Everyone would be on the same level.”

Delisio adds that some parents can’t afford designer outfits, so if students were forced into uniforms, it would eliminate the pressure those parents feel when their kids beg for expensive clothing items. “With the fashion styles today, it’s hard to find decent and moderately priced clothing for young girls these days—at least clothes they like.”

In addition, many feel that uniforms could help students who are often targets for teasing and bullying. Many times, a student is harassed based on what they are wearing, thus creating a hostile environment in the school, and may also lead to depression in the victim. The presumption is that, overall, clothing affects behavior and performance, and uniforms and stricter dress codes would help students concentrate less on looks, and more on lessons. Which would ultimately produce improved grades, and perhaps even a better attitude. Enter the safety issue into the mix—that if all children wore uniforms, it would be easier to recognize a nonstudent on campus—you have a lot of positives.  

On the other hand, opponents to uniforms say that it censors free speech and inhabits healthy, individual self-esteem. Then there are those who remain neutral, or feel clothing isn’t all that influential.

“Personally, I’m not convinced that uniforms would make a big difference in how a child learns,” says Mentor High principal Joseph Spiccia. “I feel what’s most important, and what does make a difference, is the relationship students have with their teachers and students’ motivation for learning. I’ve seen kids who were not the best dressed in school who did very well, and those who were the best dressed, weren’t always the best students.”

Spiccia adds that Mentor Schools dress policy has become stricter in the last few years. “We try and monitor the students as much as possible,” he says. “But in the cases where a student is dressed inappropriately, we keep a lot of new sweat pants, and booster club T-shirts in storage for them to wear.

“We also send out the dress code handbook every year and hope that parents help us enforce the rules. And sometimes they need back up, so we are helping them, as well. It’s a two-way street. Ultimately, it’s the partnership between parents and the school that’s  always been important.”

And that may be the most fashionable trend of all.