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School Uniforms On City Agenda

Board Leaning Toward Policy To Require Them For Elementary, Middle School Students

May 10, 2006
By RACHEL GOTTLIEB, Courant Staff Writer

After Bianca Haughton enrolled in Hartford's Capital Preparatory Magnet School in September, she learned to take the time to get to know people because the cues she relied on at her old high school - clothing styles - were replaced by uniforms.

"I opened my eyes to getting to know people by personality," Haughton, a senior, said Tuesday. "I'm friends with people now who I wouldn't talk to at my other school."

That's exactly what administrators were hoping for when they decided to require uniforms at the school.

Now, Hartford's school board, led by Mayor Eddie A. Perez, is considering a policy introduced Tuesday night to make school uniforms mandatory for all elementary and middle schools. The plan would give Capital Prep and any other district school that already has a uniform policy the authority to enforce it, and it would require all elementary and middle schools that don't have policies to get on board.

The measure will probably pass when the board votes June 6. With such approval, Hartford would join a growing number of cities around the nation that are turning to uniforms to make schools safer, more professional and more academic-minded.

"School uniforms have a positive impact on school spirit," said Perez, who is chairman of the school board. "Academic disruptions go down and learning goes up. Schools are more orderly. Kids are not fighting about the clothes they're wearing. And parents are happy because they pay less."

The use of uniforms to curb the reach of gangs in schools registered nationally when President Clinton cited Long Beach, Calif., in a State of the Union address as a model for districts, said Hartford attorney Miguel Escalera, who advised the city's Safe and Orderly School Task Force in drafting the policy. After requiring uniforms, Escalara said, Long Beach reduced the incidence of crimes in school by 36 percent, fights by 51 percent and weapons by 50 percent.

After Clinton's address, the U.S. Department of Education issued a manual for school systems listing districts around the nation with policies on uniforms and offering guidance to school boards. The manual stressed that parents must support the policy and advised boards to build in protections for religious garb and the right of freedom of expression. It also suggested that districts create a mechanism to help families who need financial aid for uniforms, and noted that policies for uniforms work best when they are part of a larger program for safety and order.

Connecticut's legislature passed a law in 1996 enabling districts to require uniforms. Waterbury was the first city in the state to enact a policy for all of its schools and then to defend it in court. In that case, four students were expelled after 10 suspensions for not wearing their school uniforms. The boys asserted that the policy violated their rights of liberty, privacy and freedom of expression. Their parents claimed the policy violated their right to parental autonomy, said Escalara, who represented the school district.

Superior Court Judge Beverly J. Hodgson ruled in favor of the school board.

Drawing on the experience of Waterbury and other districts around the country, Hartford's policy incorporates all of the advice outlined in the Department of Education manual, including seeking financial assistance through school principals.

Under the leadership of board member Andrea Comer, the task force is developing a broader discipline plan for monitoring the frequency of suspensions for any reason and a program to require suspended students to attend an academic program at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Hartford.

While the suspension and other violence-prevention programs are still being formulated, the policy for uniforms got its first public reading Tuesday.

Hartford's proposed policy would require minimum standards. It would ban blue jeans and require boys to wear blue or gray dress pants or knee-length shorts belted at the waist, solid light blue or white shirts and navy blue or white socks. Schools may add another shirt color selected from an authorized list or a color for sweat pants that may be worn on gym days.

Girls would wear solid navy blue or gray dress jumpers, skirts, skorts, pants or knee-length shorts with the same rules on belts and prohibitions on denim. Girls also would wear solid light-blue or white blouses. As with the boys, schools could add an additional color for blouses or sweat pants.

Girls' and boys' tops could be button down, polo or turtleneck. T-shirts would be banned.

More than a dozen of the city's schools have had uniform policies for years and some of them are more extensive than the attire outlined in the proposal. Capital Preparatory, for example, requires its high school boys to wear orange-and-blue ties, white shirts with the school crest, blazers and conservative black shoes. Girls wear pleated, plaid skirts and similar shirts and blazers. The school's students in grades 6 through 8 wear uniform sweaters. Most jewelry is banned.

Several parents who addressed the school board Tuesday suggested the proposed policy mandate uniforms at all high schools. One parent asked that the policy be more specific about which shoes are allowed because children are competitive about shoes.

Perez said schools will be permitted to have stricter codes for attire than those in the policy and that existing policies should be grandfathered. But Comer said it would be a mistake to require high schools to implement dress codes all at once. The district will have more success, she said, if it phases in its policy, beginning with elementary and middle schools in September and then building on that.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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