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A New Fashion Statement : Clothes: San Gabriel Valley public schools are allowing uniforms and adopting dress codes to help keep students from becoming victims of mistaken identity in gang-related shootings.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

On the first day of school, fifth-grader Soha Yassine got up at 6 a.m., gelled and braided her long, brown hair and threw on a striped crop top, jeans and clunky Doc Marten boots. She was ready to go an hour later.

It took the 10-year-old awhile to get up the nerve, but a week later, Soha twirled her hair into a formal bun and, in 30 minutes, was ready to go in her new school uniform: a plain navy-blue skirt, round-collared white blouse, knee-high socks and dressy, buckle-topped leather shoes.

Soha’s usual wardrobe--part hip-hop, part grunge, part Beavis and Butt-head--is giving way to the schoolmarmishly simple uniforms at Dewey Avenue Elementary School in San Gabriel, mostly because she doesn’t want anyone to accidentally link her clothes to any gang. In record numbers, San Gabriel Valley public schools with the same worries are giving students the option of buying school uniforms, previously the hallmark of private and parochial schools.

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At Dewey school, where roughly half of the 335 students are wearing the school uniform, Soha is so worried about gangs that she is willing to forgo trendiness for practicality “so gang members won’t think we’re part of a gang and shoot us or anything,” she said.

Last year, the Pomona school district suggested that students at all of its 24 elementary schools wear uniforms. This year, at least five more valley schools, including Bassett High School, are offering students the option of wearing uniforms, and up to 80% have taken them up on the offer. The decision to adopt uniforms is made school by school, so there is no statistic available on the total number of schools that offer uniforms.

Administrators and parents say uniforms are cheaper and neater, and that the outfits relieve kids of anxiety over what to wear every day. They also say that uniforms are a sign of the times, a way for adults to try to limit designer-label competition among students and keep kids out of clothes that could be mistaken as gang apparel.

The optional uniforms minimize problems with mistaken identify but can’t keep gang members or wanna-bes from wearing what they want to school. But other schools are moving to undercut the gang presence on campus. On Sept. 24, Gov. Pete Wilson signed a bill that gives schools the authority to ban gang-related clothing and encourages districts to adopt dress codes aimed at minimizing gang influence.

Some schools already have policies against certain colors, clothing and hairstyles commonly associated with gangs, such as Los Angeles Raiders’ jackets, extra-baggy pants and bandannas. The law is intended to strengthen that authority and encourage schools that were concerned about legalities to proceed with dress codes.

Alma Pinedo, 26, also worries that her three daughters at Dewey school could be mistakenly targeted in drive-by shootings or on the street because of their clothes.

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“(Gang members) confuse the people, right?” said Pinedo, a San Gabriel homemaker who bought patterns for the school uniforms and made her daughters two uniforms each at a cost of $60. “You hear about all these mistaken identities because of the way they’re dressed.”

Even some high school students--notorious for embracing the look of the day from African daishikis to retro bell-bottoms--are switching to uniforms. But at Bassett High School, which started uniforms this year, only 10% of the 1,150 students are complying, Principal Robert F. Nero said. Nero said he believes the program will take off when students get used to the idea. The uniform includes pants or skirts for girls, and khaki pants and golf shirts for boys.

Freshman Adriana Buenrostro made the switch to one school uniform ensemble--a multicolored pleated skirt and white blouse--to avoid gang confrontations.

“If you’re wearing (gang-related clothes), they might shoot you or do something about you,” said Adriana, 13.

Off campus, Bassett sophomore Jennifer Aguilar prefers a ‘60s look, with platform shoes, long skirts and body suits. But for school wear, she’s just as happy with uniforms.

“It saves you money, right? And I like them,” the 15-year-old said. “They’re pretty. And you don’t have to worry about getting up in the morning and ironing. They don’t wrinkle.”

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What’s more, she said, if everyone wore uniforms, there wouldn’t be so many campus cliques.

“I wanted (everyone) to have uniforms,” she said. “I liked the idea that nobody’s different. Because, normally, to be in a certain crowd, you have to dress like them, right?”

Partially because of gang fears, the number of public schools ordering uniforms from Botana & Gomez uniform company has rocketed from zero in 1990 to 90 in 1993. Private schools make up roughly 60% of the company’s business, said Kelly Chavarrio, assistant manager at the East Los Angeles company.

There is little chance that the durable, timeless school uniforms could be mistaken for gang clothes. Most elementary and middle schools uniforms come in wool or polyester, and plaids or solids in conservative colors, such as green, white, navy or gray. Girls usually wear jumpers, shorts or skirts with knee-high socks and turtlenecks or plain blouses; boys wear pants, dress shirts and sweaters. Each school’s ensembles are picked by parents, administrators and teachers.

An entire outfit costs about $30, not including shoes. Some schools only offer broad guidelines, such as solid-blue jumpers, so parents can buy the clothes at department stores or purchase patterns and make the outfits themselves. Others sell the clothes on campus, or bring the uniform company to school for special sales.

In the Bassett Unified School District, five schools offer uniforms, including, for the first time, Edgewood Middle School, where 80% of the students are wearing them, said Walter Schwartz, an assistant superintendent. Parents are snapping up uniforms partially because they want their kids to stop worrying about whether they’re trendy or hip enough, he said.

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“It takes out the competition of buying the Guess and the Izod,” Schwartz said.

Acceptance of the uniforms is taking time. At Leroy Allison Elementary School in Pomona, about 10% of the 593 students are wearing uniforms, Principal Rosanne M. Bader said. That doesn’t mean that children are reluctant to wear them, she said, but that the school needs to work harder at getting the word out to parents on the importance of uniforms.

Parents with children who do wear the uniforms tell her that they don’t worry as much about gangs, Bader said. And Bader has noticed that students wearing uniforms tend to be better behaved. There is less running in the halls, for instance, she said.

Allison School fourth-grader Megan Moore said the uniforms save time.

“I like them,” said Megan, 9. “I don’t have to go through every night and pick out what I have to wear. I just get the uniform out.”

Other students, including Tracy Umana at Dewey school, are sticking with their own clothes because they don’t like the uniforms. Tracy, 10, thinks the snug-fitting uniform makes her look fat. And she doesn’t see why other kids make such a big deal over what they wear.

“If you just care what you’re wearing,” the sixth-grader said, “they’re not really your friends. You shouldn’t care how they look. Just how they act.”

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