August 3, 2008

School Uniforms Perceived to Solve Myriad Ills

By Jonathan Cribbs, The Beaufort Gazette, S.C.

Aug. 3--The Beaufort County School District's uniforms issue is one that's been fueledmostly with anecdotes. There is the angry mother at the school board meeting, tired of seeing scantily clad girls in school, the similarly fed-up father or teachers and school leaders who believe uniforms will curb teasing, eliminate distractions and end questions about dress codes.

So, which problemwill school uniforms solve?

Well, it depends on whom you ask.

District officials said this week there is no data showing how many students are reprimanded each day across the district for dress code violations, and compiling such data would be taxing and time-intensive.

"This is one of the areas that is more subjective in nature than data-driven," superintendent Valerie Truesdale said. "It will be interesting to see how it plays out."

The school board is considering a districtwide uniform policy that would allow each school to assemble its own committees and adopt its own uniform within district-set boundaries. The board is scheduled to vote Aug. 19 to decide whether elementary- and middle-schoolers will wear uniforms starting the 2009-10 school year. High schools would follow suit the following year.

But while parental outcry has been focused on students' improper dress, school principals this week said they see it more as an administrative tool. It also can help improve a school's atmosphere.

Beaufort High School principal Dan Durbin, for instance: "Granted, we have to teach civility and what's proper socially, but right now, we've got so many people with so many different ideas of what that is, and we're not able to please any one group of those parents at any one time," he said.

Principals are often faced with choosing between kicking a student out of school for repeatedly breaking the dress code and keeping him or her in school to learn, Durbin said.

"Do you want to suspend kids and keep them out of class because of their dress?" he said. "And that's back to, 'What's our major mission in the school?' Our mission is to keep kids in school, not to kick them out."

Since Truesdale arrived, the district has continued to move away from site-based management, an old system that allowed individual schools to make many decisions for themselves, ranging from academic programs and calendars to uniform policies. The district and school board's thrust toward a districtwide policy is simply a continuation of that, Broad River Elementary School principal Gail Wages said.

"I'm not sure that there was a catalyst," she said. "The uniforms would offer us another phase of consistency among other students."

Lady's Island Middle School adopted a uniform policy last year, and principal Terry Bennett said it has ended debate between parents, students and school officials over what is appropriate clothing.

"It just takes out a lot of the questions," he said.

Beaufort Elementary School principal Terry Hitch said she sees uniforms as a general improvement rather than a problem-solver.

"I think parents like it with the little ones with the ease of not making decisions about what the children wear to school," she said. "I think it does create a nice school culture when you see everybody. ... It creates a sense of family and belonging."

Truesdale agreed.

"I tell you, sometimes when I walk into a school that wears uniforms, it's an orderly visual," she said. "When you have uniforms there is a very crisp, clean look to it, so that's the only time that I really blink."


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