Goose bumps of pride prickle Gaile McLaurin’s skin during school assemblies now that her students wear uniforms.
“It’s a tremendous feeling to look out on a sea of faces and the colors of red, white and blue,” said the principal of Tacoma’s Mason Middle School, which began requiring uniforms last fall.
A tradition in Catholic schools, uniforms are making inroads in public education, reflecting popular concern over peer pressure, school discipline, gang violence and disrespect for authority.
President Clinton endorsed the trend Tuesday in his State of the Union address, challenging schools to “teach character education: good values, and good citizenship. And if it means teenagers will stop killing each other over gang jackets, then public schools should be able to require school uniforms.”
Two bills in the Washington Legislature, one sponsored by a West Side Democrat and one sponsored by a Spokane Valley Republican, would make it easier for public school districts to require them.
Supporters say uniforms improve student behavior, cut families’ clothing costs and eliminate morning arguments over how children dress for school.
Opponents say they are an unnecessary expense for parents and squelch kids’ individualism. The American Civil Liberties Union has opposed uniforms in some cities, contending they violate students’ freedom of expression and create obstacles for poor families.
In Long Beach, Calif., where all public elementary and middle school students now wear uniforms, school officials claim they documented a decrease in violence and behavior problems.
Fighting dropped by 51 percent, vandalism decreased by 46 percent and all school crimes fell by 36 percent - all in one year.
“It could be sheer coincidence,” said district spokesman Richard Van Der Laan. “If you ask the youngsters in the middle schools, they will tell you they’re getting along better because of the uniforms.”
Such stories grabbed the interest of the Spokane Valley Chamber of Commerce Education Committee.
The committee worked with Rep. Mark Sterk and Valley school superintendents on a bill addressing uniforms and other discipline issues.
“There’s a case to be made that uniforms take away students’ rights,” said Steve Baker, a Valley businessman and chairman of the committee. “It’s pretty much our feeling that there’s a certain element that doesn’t deserve to have those rights.”
The Valley superintendents are lukewarm to uniforms, although they like most of Sterk’s bill. They particularly like its guarantee that schools can deny transfers to out-of-district students with a record of disruptive behavior.
Reservations about the two bills surfaced with the state school boards association whose attorney said there may be constitutional problems - and trouble with the ACLU.
“Our essential point is we don’t see why students can’t choose to wear what they wish as long as it’s not disruptive to the educational pro- cess,” said the ACLU’s Jerry Sheehan.
But uniforms appeal to parents whether they are liberal or conservative, said Rep. Julia Patterson, D-SeaTac, who is the mother of a junior high student.
Her bill would require school boards to hold public hearings on uniforms by September 1997.
“Many school boards will be surprised when they hear from the public about this issue,” Patterson said. “My belief is they’ll discover a majority of parents would like much stricter dress codes for their children for monetary reasons and for social reasons.”
Uniforms reduce peer pressure, said Tacoma Principal McLaurin, where parents were involved in setting the uniform policy. If a kid dresses like a skateboarder or a gang member, he’s more likely to adopt the behavior and attitudes of those groups, she said. In other words, the sneer is part of the fashion.
Teachers are less likely to pigeon-hole students in uniform.
“This is forcing teachers to look at who the student really is and not what they’re wearing,” McLaurin said. “They look more deeply into the students.”
In addition, baggy pants and over-sized shirts, now a teen fashion, make great hiding places for weapons and other contraband, McLaurin said.
Other cities where public schools are trying uniforms include Baltimore, Phoenix, Denver, Dallas, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Salem, Ore., Charleston, S.C., and Orlando, Fla.
So far, no Spokane-area public schools have jumped on the bandwagon.
An Austin, Texas, public elementary school abandoned uniforms after one year because the school’s high student turnover rate made it unworkable. New families hadn’t bought the proper clothing and felt left out of the decision, a district spokeswoman said.
Uniforms in public schools can be as simple as dark pants and plain-colored shirts.
Tacoma’s Mason Middle School requires navy or tan slacks, skirts or shorts worn with red, white, navy or tan polo-style shirts or sweat shirts . Students also may wear fitted jeans.
Students must tuck in their polo shirts. Their hems cannot be split or tattered.
Kids dislike the change; parents love it, McLaurin said.
“It’s a pain to have your shirts tucked in all the time,” said Patricia Harburg-Petrich, 14, an eighth-grader at the school. “I like tie-dye and I can’t wear that anymore.”
The girl’s family spent about $250 to outfit their two daughters in the uniforms, said Patricia’s mother, Elizabeth Harburg.
Patricia’s father, Christopher Petrich, said he didn’t like the policy at first. He worried about its impact on poor families. He is still concerned about the cost, but acknowledges teachers credit the uniforms with improved student behavior.
“Personally I don’t think if our daughters have good behavior it is because of how they dress,” the Tacoma father said. “If they behave well it’s because of how important it is to us that they behave themselves.”
Students out of uniform can borrow clothing in the school office. The punishment for repeated offenders is an hour of detention. One family requested a transfer from the school because of the uniform policy, the principal said.
The school has a mixed population, with about 45 percent of students qualifying for free and reduced-price lunches. Thirty-five percent are minorities.
“I think it has had a tremendous positive impact on our student body,” McLaurin said.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: UNIFORM BILLS The two bills in the Legislature encouraging school uniforms are: House Bill 2613: Prime sponsor, Rep. Mark Sterk, R-Spokane Valley. His bill would authorize the imposition of district-wide dress codes, including uniforms; allow schools to refuse admission to out-of-district students with a history of disruptive behavior; allow schools to reduce grades for disciplinary reasons; allow schools to bar suspended students from class in cases where the suspension is being appealed. The House Education Committee will hear the bill Friday morning. House Bill 2532: Prime sponsor, Rep. Julia Patterson, D-SeaTac. Her bill would require the state superintendent to gather existing research on uniforms’ impact on discipline and grades. School boards would have to hold public hearings on uniforms before Sept. 1, 1997. No hearing is scheduled.