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Commentary : School Dress Codes: A Colorful, Sobering Lesson in How Things Have Changed

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The school dress code was simple when I was in grammar school during the early 1960s: clean shirts and ties for boys, uniforms for girls. That was at St. Christopher Grade School in Rocky River, Ohio.

That code now seems quaint alongside the strict rules that Jackson Elementary School at 54th Street and El Cajon Boulevard instituted March 9. Jackson students are now prohibited from wearing colors and particular items of clothing that are favored by gangs.

I never once breached the St. Christopher dress code, so I don’t know what happened to offenders. But my kindergarten son, Tim, has a working understanding of what might happen should he breach Jackson’s new dress code: Gangs of kids might beat you up if you wear the wrong color, he told me last week. When I parroted the advice that parents traditionally offer--find an adult if a problem arises--he nonchalantly advised me that gangs beat up adults and police, too.

So, when Tim picks out his clothes in the morning, we now must remember which colors and combinations are on the forbidden list and dress him accordingly. My son--a dark-horse candidate who won a “Good Citizen” award during February--doesn’t wear outfits that are exclusively red, blue or green. He doesn’t wear baseball caps or bandannas, and he doesn’t wear colored shoelaces in his tennis shoes.

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At first, Tim was confused by the dress code. At first, he thought the principal wanted students to wear gang colors. My wife explained that the opposite was true. Tim then wondered if he’d ever be able to wear his favorite red shirt. We explained that only outfits that include red shirts, red pants and red shoes are forbidden.

That settled him down a bit. But it remains very confusing for this particular kindergartner.

The new dress code is designed to ensure “a safe environment for all students,” according to a letter Tim carried home from Jackson Principal R. J. Cunningham. “Students wearing any of the (banned) clothing will be asked to remove the item or they may be taken home to change their clothing.”

The dress code was instituted because “we are seeing increasing evidence of our students identifying with certain gang behavior,” Cunningham wrote. “Some of our students have been found wearing clothing which is associated with gang behavior.”

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For parents, the dress code is a sad, but not surprising, byproduct of San Diego’s growing gang problem.

Last year in San Diego, 96 drive-by shootings killed eight people and left 54 others injured. The Police Department, which estimates San Diego’s gang population at about 2,000, recently formed an 86-member Special Enforcement Division to identify and arrest gang members.

According to police, gang members are heavily involved in the city’s booming drug business. Many carry handguns, and some have automatic machine guns capable of firing 400 rounds a minute.

That is a far cry from the neighborhood tough guys I worried about during grade school. Danny Coyne was the toughest guy at Impett Park, a playground on Cleveland’s West Side. He once cornered my brother and me in a neighbor’s garage, where we hid for several hours. But, when supper approached, my brother bravely confronted Danny to win our freedom.

On occasion, my friends and I fought to keep outsiders from “our” park. But the only weapons were fists and rocks, and the only injuries were an occasional bruise and some hurt feelings.

In large part, growing up in Cleveland was remarkably similar to “The Wonder Years,” a television show that chronicles the coming of age of a grade-school boy growing up in a suburban setting during the late 1960s.

There are more than just miles and time between St. Christopher Grade School, circa 1961, and Andrew Jackson Elementary School in 1989. And for that reason, I’m not very well equipped to offer gang-related advice to my kindergarten son.

I grew up in all-white sections of Cleveland. In contrast, the principal’s notes that Tim carries home are written in Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian, Spanish and English.

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Tim’s schoolmates are card-carrying members of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition. And it is with them that Tim is forging his own decade of “Wonder Years.” But I wonder, if these children are worrying about gangs at age 6, what kind of memories they will have to relish in their later years.


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