Educators want to give kids fashion freedom, but the need to create safe learning environments has caused some schools to impose rules. : Cracking the Dress Code

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

"You're not going to school dressed like that !?"

That , to appalled parents, used to mean white lipstick, miniskirts, low-slung jeans, duck-tail haircuts, sheer blouses over lacy underwear, or shorts, depending on the decade and locale.

But today that means baggy, sagging pants, oversized plaid flannel shirts, jean cut-offs, Birkenstocks, beaded necklaces and huge overalls. To complete the look, the overalls must be unbuckled on one side and worn over a tight shirt, jeans should be slit at the hem, long pants must fall in folds over the shoe, and boxer shorts should be visible, slightly bloused, above pants cinched at the hip with a belt. Quasi-grunge is OK; hair in lank strands and filthy clothes are pushing it.

Almost anything goes.

But with the rise of gangs, certain fashions can be dangerous. So schools on the Westside have begun to adopt dress codes, which had been largely abolished in the self-expressive '60s. And some public schools are copying parochial and private schools by encouraging pupils to wear uniforms--largely to differentiate them from gang members but also to minimize peer pressure to wear certain pricey brands.

"The challenge is to let the kids be individuals but create a safe environment," said Ilene Straus, principal of Lincoln Middle School in Santa Monica.

The courts have ruled that mandatory uniforms in public schools are unconstitutional, and the state Education Code also prohibits requiring students to wear uniforms.

Lincoln's new dress code forbids clothing that "disrupts the learning environment," such as tube tops, bare midriffs and cutoff shirts. Clothing cannot advocate "unhealthy behavior, dangerous practice or create a safety problem," which means students cannot wear T-shirts emblazoned with marijuana plants or spray-paint cans, as well as anything suggestive of gang membership. And students also cannot wear clothing that "defames, degrades or is offensive to a race, culture, religion or gender" or contains "suggestive or objectionable material."

The code is purposely vague, Straus said, because what may be dangerous one week may be merely trendy the next. The baggies that once indicated gang membership are now popular even on college campuses. And sometimes an item of apparel may be OK by itself but it is definitely gangsta when worn in conjunction with certain other clothing.

A parent herself, Straus said she tries to be tolerant--allowing boys to "sag," for example, as long as their stomachs are covered and they don't trip over their pants on the stairs.

"Kids at this age want to express themselves," she said, gesturing toward a patio lunch table of eighth-graders nearly indistinguishable from one another in their bulky plaid flannels.

The code, in the works for several months, has been approved by the Faculty Advisory Council, the PTA and the School Site Council, which includes four student representatives. Student representative Stephanie Mihalas, 14, who will outline the changes over the school intercom next week, said she fought to ensure that Lincoln students can appeal dress decisions they deem unfair.

"I argued that students do not know who to go to if one teacher sends them down (to change into acceptable P.E. clothes or turn objectionable T-shirts inside out) and another says it's OK," Mihalas said. "We're setting up an appeals process.

"The general rule is that you have freedom of expression as long as you don't hurt anybody."

Most school districts have general dress code policies, leaving individual schools to fashion rules appropriate for their student bodies. The Los Angeles Unified School District, while recognizing choice of dress as a form of free speech, authorizes schools to ban clothing that poses a threat to the safety and welfare of the student or others or is disruptive to the school program, said Howard Friedman, assistant legal adviser.

Beverly Hills requires students to wear "business-like" attire. "A child's dress and grooming should reflect the good taste and judgment of the parents," the dress code states. Girls may not wear make-up through the eighth grade without special permission from the administration.

"I think students perform better (when there's a dress code)," said Beverly Hills High principal Ben Bushman, "It creates, overall, a better atmosphere." Students at the high school are asked to sign a conduct contract each year in which they agree not to wear clothing signifying membership in illegal groups.

Not that it outlaws so-called gangsta fashion. "I can't argue with somebody who wears baggy clothes," Bushman said of the current trend. "You can't mandate fashion. . . . My gosh, bell-bottoms are coming back."

Santa Monica wants its students to arrive with "proper attention having been given to personal cleanliness or neatness of dress," but allows any clothing that is not deemed "obscene, libelous or slanderous," does not disrupt the classroom, and does not advocate illegal activity (including gangs). Its code adds that "no restrictions on freedom of dress and adornment shall be imposed by the District which may violate a student's civil rights, which imposes particular codes of morality or religious tenets, (or) which attempts to dictate style or taste . . . "

Culver City, which has no district dress code, takes a casual approach. Culver City High School even began allowing hats this year after endless discussions involving students, staff and the baseball team.

Principal Laura Plasse said that security complained the ban was hard to enforce: Do you take away the cap if someone is holding it in his hand? What if a baseball player puts one on in the hallway before walking out to the field for practice? The school decided to abolish the policy and see what happened; there have been no problems.

"There is no need for a strict dress code at this point," she said. "There doesn't seem to be a big concern about what people wear." But hair nets, shower caps and bandannas--favored by gang members--are forbidden. "We have to draw the line somewhere ," said assistant principal William Coates.

There are specific bans at individual schools, depending on their particular needs.

At Venice High--where oversized garb is so popular that principal Bud Jacobs said he doubts that there are "any clothes left for fat people in Los Angeles"--muscle T-shirts are prohibited. "They expose too much of the body and have that Eastside cholo look associated with some gangs," Jacobs said.

At Pacific Palisades Elementary, girls may wear earrings up to one inch long, but boys may not. Some parents have complained to principal Terri Arnold about that, but she explains it is a protective measure for the safety of children who are bused in from neighborhoods with gangs.

"Many of our children get off the bus in gang territory," she said. "Baggies, bandannas and one pierced earring on boys might be fashionable but also suggest gang affiliation and put them in danger. We can't have two sets of rules for local and traveling students and, besides, even our neighborhood children go outside the Palisades.

Even some preschools have imposed clothing restrictions. The Redwood Village Children's Center, a preschool in Marina del Rey, outlawed Ninja Turtles a couple of years ago because they presumably led to overly aggressive play.

But underlying most clothing restrictions is the fear of the sometimes deadly consequences of being taken for a rival gang member. An increasing number of Los Angeles elementary schools have adopted voluntary uniforms, among them Vine Street School in the Hollywood area, Dublin Avenue Fundamental Center, a magnet school in Leimert Park, Marvin Avenue, Arlington Heights, Sixth Avenue, and Coliseum Street School in the Crenshaw area, and Vaughn Street School in Pacoima.

"Uniforms simplify things," said Vine Street principal Edwina Fields. "We had a concern about our children being mistaken for gang members." She said parents brought up the uniform idea during two years of discussions about how to improve safety. Since school uniforms were adopted last year, nearly one-third of the Vine Street students have begun wearing them. Each outfit, which consists of a red-and-blue plaid skirt or jumper with a white blouse for girls and blue trousers with a light blue shirt for boys, plus navy sweaters, costs about $60.

The latest school to vote for uniforms is the Westside's Santa Monica Boulevard School, a year-round school that approved the concept earlier this month. Students will begin wearing them in July.

Sandra Campos, who has two children in the school, said only two of 200 parents attending a meeting to choose uniforms last week were opposed to the idea, which is voluntary.

Campos said the uniforms chosen will range from $26 to $36, will be offered for several weeks and can be bought on layaway. Plans are also being made to help parents who want uniforms for their children but cannot afford them, she said.

"The parents, teachers and administration are all behind this," she said. "The reason is to feel secure. My son is 8 years old. They (neighborhood gangs) may think that you are one of them, confuse you and kill you. (With uniforms) I know who belongs to what school.

"Also they won't have to compete with one another. We are showing that we are all equal, all the same."

But not everyone is enthralled with the idea of uniforms or even a dress code, teen-agers least of all.

Lincoln Middle School eighth-grader Lynsea Robinson, who until recently favored men's large pajama bottoms, pronounced the new dress code stupid. "Just because we wear clothes like gangs doesn't necessarily mean we are in (tagging) crews or gangs."

Added her friend Lauren Barden, hitching up her overalls fashionably unbuckled on one side, "We should wear what we want to wear. We're not distracting anybody. We have constitutional rights."

Lynsea's mom, Karen Robinson, sighs at her daughter's get-ups--the pajama bottoms, the punk-red streaks through the hair, the grungy overalls that "don't you dare" throw in the wash machine.

But then she smiles, thinking of her own high school days in the San Fernando Valley in the 1960s: when she wore white lipstick and hip-huggers and miniskirts, often rolling her skirt up around the waist and lowering it to the required one-inch above the knee only when necessary; when her mother got a call from the vice principal telling her to bring in a change of clothes; when she dressed the way she did because "that was the style."

"Personally I don't like it (her daughter's current clothing taste). But what can I say? It is the style."

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