Showing Off the Colors : Atty. Gen. Reno Praises Long Beach School District's Uniform Program

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The attorney general wore orange. Everyone else wore Rogers red.

U.S. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno, acting as an emissary from President Clinton, came to Long Beach's Will Rogers Middle School on Wednesday to sing the praises of school uniforms.

She stood at the podium and, looking out, saw nothing but red sweatshirts, white shirts and blouses, and black shorts, pants and skirts.

"I can't tell you how important this is to me," she told the assembled students, teachers and parents in the school auditorium.

Reno was in Long Beach because she had heard about the mandatory school uniform program for elementary and middle school students, the first city in the nation to do so.

She had read about the dramatic decrease in crime during the first year that uniforms were tried. And, she said, so had Clinton.

"If we are to stop a 21st-Century explosion in youth crime, we have to give our local schools a chance to fight back," Reno told the audience.

"President Clinton believes that if uniforms can help fight school violence, we should stand behind the schools that try them--to help kids do the right thing and stay gang-free and drug-free."

The assembly was a highly orchestrated event--youngsters talking about why they like and dislike uniforms, parents talking about what a difference uniforms have made, other students asking questions of the attorney general.

Left unsaid, except for an oblique phrase or two, was how contentious the uniform question had become, particularly on the part of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Legal Aid Foundation of Long Beach.

In the early afternoon, just before Reno was set to arrive, a lawyer for the Legal Aid Foundation called the meeting with the attorney general "a phony, staged event" in one of the more well-to-do neighborhoods of the city.

The lawyer, Dennis Rockway, said Reno should have been taken to an inner-city school.

The two civil liberties groups have filed a lawsuit, charging that the city's poor are hurt by the school uniform policy because they cannot afford to buy them.

The school district has said that it has gone to great lengths to make sure that everyone will somehow be provided with them.

Just before the meeting with Reno, Long Beach School Supt. Carl Cohn said Rogers had been chosen because parents in the area had taken the initiative and implemented school uniforms a year before they became mandatory.

Rogers is in an affluent neighborhood, he said, but many students are bused in from disadvantaged areas of the city.

"We could have had her come to the other side of town," Cohn said. "It's no big conspiracy."

Both sides said they hope to have the lawsuit question settled quickly now that it has gone to mediation, which started Wednesday.

At the assembly, Reno brought up other areas she hoped would be addressed--the issue of truancy and how it leads to dropping out of school, of the need for conflict resolution for students, "learning how to talk with people without guns and knives and fists."

One of those who spoke was Donald Erickson, a UCLA professor of education who has been studying the effects of uniforms throughout the school district. He talked of how the uniforms leveled the playing field for students, making it more difficult to tell who was rich and who was poor.

Reno called the program a "national example" of what might be accomplished.

At the end of the program, Reno finally fit in with the audience. She was presented with a Rogers red sweatshirt.

Last year, the Long Beach school district drew national attention when it made the uniforms mandatory.

It drew attention again this year when the first crime statistics were released for the period when the students wore uniforms.

Fights were less than half of what they were the previous year. Assault and battery declined 34%, sex offenses 74% and robbery 66%.

School officials were quick to note that other factors also contributed to the decrease.

Dick Van Der Laan, a spokesman for the school district, said the trend seems to be continuing. "In fact there appears to be a steady decline."

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