Senior John Rocha dressed to impress for the start of school: new $38 Levi's wider than the Panama Canal and a brilliant white T-shirt--a bargain at $8--large enough to clothe a Toyota.
The look was baggy, hip, just right.
And it barely got him past the front door of John H. Glenn High School in Norwalk.
As fast as you can say "dress code," Rocha's outfit and $250 worth of his new school wardrobe became obsolete.
He ran squarely into the school's ban of "overly" baggy clothes that are associated with some gangs.
Every school system in the area, from Long Beach to Montebello, forbids clothes and virtually anything else linked to gangs. And the list of banned items is ever increasing.
Officials said the prohibitions are needed to keep the peace between competing gang factions at high schools and middle schools. And non-gang members become targets for gang members when they adopt gang fashions, officials say.
Schools used to justify dress codes on the grounds of modesty and good taste. Now, officials say these regulations save lives.
"We would be opposed to anything that is disruptive or subjects someone to potential danger," said Dick Van Der Laan, spokesman for Long Beach Unified. "Students still have considerable latitude in what fashions they choose."
Some rules, however, clearly violate the rights of students, said Raleigh Levine, a constitutional scholar with the American Civil Liberties Union. But school districts are pushing forward with their policies just the same.
The Little Lake City School District, which serves Santa Fe Springs and Norwalk, banned gang-related attire earlier this year. In the Whittier area, the Lowell Joint School District mandated similar regulations this fall.
The Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District expanded its dress code to deal with gangs a year ago, and administrators at Glenn High School said they are enforcing the rule as never before.
The school mailed a copy of the dress code to each family. On the second day of school, the code was explained in a series of student assemblies.
"I knew it was not OK," Rocha said of his wardrobe. "I was testing them."
He was hardly alone. Another teen-ager wore pants with a 62-inch waistline. Like other boys, he was sent home to change. One youth had to return home twice the same day.
On opening day, security aide Carlos Salazar stopped five students with watch chains--banned because they can be used as weapons. He was also on the lookout for initialed belt buckles. One local gang wears buckles with the initial "N"; another uses the initial "C."
Those belt buckles have caused fights in past years, officials said.
Some suspected gang members got around one rule by wearing banned Raiders logo T-shirts under other clothes. They then allowed the arms and tail of the banned shirts to hang exposed below their outer garments, creating a new "gang" fashion. Staff members have now banned that look as well.
Many students support the dress code and said they feel safer because of it, but Rocha isn't convinced.
"I don't think there should be one, because the way a person dresses doesn't make a person what he is," he said. "We don't tell the teachers what to wear."
Nonetheless, Rocha now complies with the dress code in Norwalk. In other places, he'd still be persona non grata . His gold earrings would be banned in Lynwood schools. His unbuttoned shirt would ground him in Long Beach.
The rules vary significantly from district to district, often because officials have varying standards and confront different gangs.
Most districts ban some kind of shoes--sometimes because of gang associations, sometimes because the shoes don't allow students to participate in athletics. In general, leave thongs, sandals and open-toed shoes at home. And don't forget to wear some kind of hose or socks.
In Long Beach schools, don't wear shoes that could damage floors.
Bare flesh is discouraged. Some schools tolerate shorts; almost none go for cut-offs. So cover those legs and shoulders, button your shirts, and forget dresses and blouses cut low in the front or back.
And don't think you're in the clear if you stow a forbidden item to wear later. Compton Unified bans even the possession of a baseball cap, dark glasses, gloves, rags, hats and plastic hands.
Lynwood Unified will allow caps only when it rains, so consult a meteorologist. Lynwood also bans "excessive fads such as boys wearing earrings, handkerchiefs hanging out of pocket or gloves."
The Whittier Union High School District won't allow gang names or logos on notebooks, folders, book covers and assignments.
Wallets are OK almost everywhere if out of sight and not attached to chains.
School administrators everywhere believe in underwear. They just don't want to see it. "Undergarments shall be worn and must not be visible at any time," reads the Downey Unified dress code.
In Norwalk and La Mirada, sleeveless undershirts must be worn under clothes. In Long Beach, you can wear them over clothes.
Some rules leave room for interpretation. Girls' hair "is to be arranged in a neat and attractive style," according to Compton's rules. Lynwood forbids "clothing which is too low-cut, sheer or tight. Blouses must not be too revealing."
No school system outdoes the tiny Lowell Joint School District in barring things with alleged gang associations.
Supt. Ronald T. Randolph issued a detailed set of instructions this month in a letter to parents. His rules are based on discussions with law-enforcement authorities.
Among other items, Randolph forbids a number of symbols, some of them rather obscure: the balpamet, the Seal of Solomon, the stamp of anarchy and the cross of confusion.
He doesn't pretend to know what they all mean.
"How the gangs adopt something is beyond me," he said. "I don't know the significance." He also banned any clothes with white Old English lettering, regardless of the word spelled. Also forbidden: black and white sports shoes with an altered logo and almost any shoe with writing on it; khaki pants, and Bermuda shorts.
The rules were optional last year, mandatory this year.
"When clothes are unacceptable, we call up parents and say, 'Would you mind bringing a change of clothes,' and that's generally what happens," Randolph said. "We've had great parental support."
Some districts have turned to student uniforms. In 1989, two Long Beach elementary schools adopted uniforms. This year, four elementary schools and two middle schools in Long Beach have joined them. Elementary schools in Norwalk and Paramount also began using uniforms. Purchasing the uniforms is optional, but strongly encouraged through pep rallies, financial subsidies and perks.
Los Angeles Unified lets individual schools establish specific rules to discourage gangs. In principle, the district allows clothing of any fashion, style or design.
Such freedoms afford protection from an occasionally troublesome gang: lawyers.
Attorneys have successfully challenged many provisions of school dress codes, said Levine of the ACLU. "Dressing is a form of expression in our view," she said. "Unless something causes a material or substantial disruption, it's got to be allowed."
Levine said gang-linked clothing can be legally banned to protect students, but that sometimes schools are regulating fashion rather than alleviating danger. Prohibiting boys from wearing earrings is "sexist and most likely homophobic," she said.
The rules that won't survive challenges are discriminatory, overly vague or give too much discretion to administrators, she said.
"A lot of times, unbridled discretion leads to discrimination," Levine said. "A white seventh-grade girl may wear something that on an 11th-grade African-American boy might be considered gang-related--simply because the administrator decides it's a lot more likely that the African-American boy might be in a gang."
Dress codes work well when enforced with common sense, said Van Der Laan of Long Beach Unified.
"It's a judgment call," he said. "You look at the regulation and the appearance of the student. If somebody comes in and he's got a zero inseam and pants hanging around his ankles, that might be a problem. It's a matter of degree more than anything else."
Community correspondent Psyche Pascual contributed to this story.
Crossing the Dress Code Line
A selection of items that are accepted in some schools but banned in others:
Bandanna: is a Boy Scout staple turned gang symbol Earings: should be worn by girls only Raiders: gear should be left at the stadium Cutoffs: are OK for the beach, but banned in Compton. Combat boots: also get the boot in Whittier Hats: off in most districts, unless boosting school teams T-shirts: depicting drugs, alcohol, cigarettes or profanity are out in Bellflower Button downs: must be buttoned down and neither baggy nor skin tight Big belt: buckles are banned in Long Beach Wallets: are fine, but chains are over the line Baggy pants: are a no-no in Downey
Researched by JODI WILGOREN, ROSE APODACA and SUZAN SCHILL / Los Angeles Times
Some of the hottest styles worn by teen-agers have been banned by local school districts.
SCHOOL HATS/ TANK BAGGY OVERSIZED HALTERS/ BATHING DISTRICT** CAPS TOPS PANTS T-SHIRTS TUBE TOPS SUITS ABC Unified * * Bellflower * Compton * * * Downey * * East Whittier * * * * * El Rancho * * * Little Lake * * * * Long Beach * * * * Los Nietos * * * * Lowell Joint * * * * * Lynwood * * * * Montebello * * Norwalk/La Mirada * * * Paramount * South Whittier * * * Whittier City * * * * * Whittier Union * * *
SCHOOL CUT-OFF DISTRICT** SHORTS ABC Unified Bellflower Compton * Downey * East Whittier * El Rancho Little Lake Long Beach * Los Nietos Lowell Joint * Lynwood * Montebello Norwalk/La Mirada * Paramount South Whittier Whittier City * Whittier Union *
SCHOOL REVEALING BANDANAS/ BIG BELT GANG DISTRICT** BLOUSES GLOVES BUCKLES CLOTHING ABC Unified * * Bellflower * * Compton * * * Downey * * East Whittier * * * El Rancho * * Little Lake * Long Beach * * * * Los Nietos * Lowell Joint * Lynwood * * * Montebello * * * Norwalk/La Mirada * * * * Paramount * South Whittier * * * * Whittier City Whittier Union * * *
SCHOOL DISTRICT** STEEL-TOED BOOTS THONGS BEEPERS ABC Unified * Bellflower * Compton * * Downey * * East Whittier * * * El Rancho * * Little Lake * * Long Beach * * Los Nietos * * Lowell Joint * * * Lynwood * * Montebello * * Norwalk/La Mirada * * Paramount * South Whittier * * Whittier City * Whittier Union *
** Los Angeles Unified has no policy banning these items but individual schools within the district do.
Source: Individual districts. Researched by Suzan Schill.