School uniforms poll bares generation gap

Leave our threads alone, Harford County students say.

A poll conducted recently revealed a generational divide. Among Harford County public school students, 87.9 percent opposed uniforms, while the school system's teachers and administrators were overwhelmingly in favor of them. The voluntary survey had a 47.7 percent participation rate.


Among parents, 58.4 percent indicated that they support mandatory uniforms.

Troy Shuman, a senior at C. Milton Wright High School in Bel Air, said uniforms would be "teaching conformity and squelching individual thought."


"Just think of prisons and gangs," he said. "The ultimate socializer to crush rebellion is conformity in appearance. If a school system starts at clothes, where does it end?"

Many students agreed, and so did their formal representatives. The Harford County Regional Association of Student Councils voted unanimously to oppose mandatory uniforms, saying they lack educational value and suppress individual expression.

A committee assembled by the school system examined the uniform issue, convening six times since July and presenting its study at the school board meeting last week.

In November, the school system sent out a one-question survey asking those responding to agree or disagree with: "Harford County Public Schools students should be required to wear a school uniform."

Among parents who responded, 63.7 percent of elementary school parents supported uniforms, compared with 52.5 percent of middle school parents and 50.6 percent of high school parents.

Among students, 16.4 percent of those in middle school supported uniforms, compared with 33.1 percent of high school students.

Support for uniforms was nearly twice as high, (46.4 percent) among seniors as it was among their younger schoolmates.

Chase Jackson, the student representative, who opposes mandatory school uniforms said, "We should focus on the necessities of the school system, not curiosity."


Bel Air Middle School parent Larry English, who observed the board meeting, agreed.

"There are many more important issues than school uniforms," said English, who voted against uniforms.

"I don't see any true benefit from forcing the uniform issue," English said. "It would be great if uniforms magically made schools more secure and made them perform better. I don't see any indication that any of that would occur."

David Brunsma, a sociology associate professor at the University of Missouri who wrote a book about school uniforms in 2004, called the movement toward uniforms a "symbolic crusade." He said uniforms have no impact on school safety or unity or learning.

In a 1998 study, Brunsma and co-author Kerry Ann Rockquemore wrote that requiring uniforms is "a superficial change, but it attracts attention because of its visible nature. Instituting a uniform policy can be viewed as analogous to cleaning and brightly painting a deteriorating building in that, on the one hand, it grabs our immediate attention; on the other hand, it's only a coat of paint."

Proponents argue that uniforms would reduce clothing costs for parents and cut down on social distractions for students.


Some board members have argued that uniforms would make schools safer by making it easier to determine whether youths are students at a school.

Sheriff L. Jesse Bane expressed support for uniforms this year.

Brunsma said that after 10 years of examining data, "I simply cannot find any empirical evidence that school uniform policies do the kinds of things that we assume that they would do. That isn't common sense at all. It's common nonsense. It doesn't hold any water."

He estimated that 25 percent to 28 percent of public schools require uniforms.

Members of the county school system's uniform committee said they would provide the school board with more data next month.

Superintendent Jacqueline C. Haas has requested further exploration of the issue and a study of school systems that have required uniforms.


"This is not an action item to simply alleviate gang violence and disruptive behavior," said Tom Fidler, president of the school board. "It's to create a positive learning environment. And we're going to do whatever we can do to create a positive learning environment, not just for students but for our staff and teachers and parents as well. Uniforms would be a step in the process, not the correct-all answer."

Board member Patrick Hess, a member of the uniform committee, has said that uniforms would equalize the haves and have-nots, and could minimize cliques.

Brunsma counters that argument, saying, "More-affluent families buy more uniforms per child. The less affluent, if they can't afford uniforms, they have one" he said. "It takes two months for this to get washed, re-washed and to have things spilled on it. It's more likely to be tattered, torn and faded. It only takes two months for socioeconomic differences to show up again."

Cherry Hill Elementary School in Baltimore was one of the first public schools to adopt mandatory uniforms in the 1980s.

In the 1990s, the Long Beach Unified School District in California required uniforms at some of its schools. Since then, the public school systems in cities including Detroit, Miami, New Orleans, Phoenix, Seattle and St. Louis have instituted voluntary or mandatory uniform policies, according to the U.S. Department of Education's Manual on School Uniforms.