President Clinton, coming down squarely on the side of those who favor requiring uniforms in public schools, said Saturday he sees it as a way to reduce peer pressure and school violence.
Clinton visited the Jackie Robinson Academy in Long Beach to demonstrate support for the Long Beach Unified School District’s uniform policy, the first in the nation for a public school district.
“The entire United States of America is in your debt because you took the first step to show that elementary and middle school students could wear uniforms to class, reduce violence, reduce truancy, reduce disorder and increase learning,” Clinton said.
Clinton’s remarks on what is essentially a local issue placed him in the wider debate over social values that is emerging as a main factor in the presidential campaign.
Whether schoolchildren have freedom of choice in their daily wear is not in itself an area in which the federal government has the impact it has in, say, foreign policy or the economy. But the example offered by the Long Beach schools afforded Clinton the opportunity to use the presidential pulpit to speak on social concerns.
Later in the day, before heading to Seattle, Clinton turned the presidential spotlight on efforts to retrain workers, protect them from corporate downsizing and allow them to take advantage of other shifts in the economy.
In Long Beach, where the uniform policy went into effect in 1994, school officials say it has contributed to a 36% drop in crime among elementary and middle school students during its first year. They report that fights fell by 51%, sex offenses decreased by 74%, weapon offenses were down by 50%, assault and battery cases dropped by 34% and vandalism decreased by 18%. The officials also say the trend is showing up throughout the district, from the richest communities to the poorest.
Clinton said that the policy is making schools “safer, more disciplined and orderly, freeing teachers to focus on teaching and students to focus on their job of learning.”
The president spoke at the end of a week in which Alfredo Perez, a fifth-grade teacher at Figueroa Street Elementary School in South-Central Los Angeles, was critically wounded when he was shot in his classroom.
“We are praying . . . that Alfredo Perez will pull through and that his wife, who is also a schoolteacher, will have the courage, the bravery to carry on--and that those students in that school who underwent that horrible experience will somehow find the courage to believe in the adults who are responsible for their lives, so that they can go and grow and learn again,” Clinton said.
While violence in the Long Beach schools is down, no one is saying the uniform policy is the only reason.
Other factors cited include an increased emphasis on parent involvement, decentralization of schools and an effort to improve the learning environment. But the uniform policy also has generated controversy, and lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and the Legal Aid foundation of Long Beach on Friday urged Clinton--as he proposes it as a national approach to school discipline problems--to remember early legal challenges to the Long Beach policy.
There was only passing reference during the official proceedings to how contentious the policy has been.
But just as Clinton sees Long Beach as a model, said Alan Friel, one of the civil liberties attorneys, “so do we.”
“There are lessons to learn in Long Beach about how to include and how to avoid exclusion, about how to develop assistance for low-income people from community resources and the need to strike the best balance between the collective needs for security and parents’ ultimate rights to decide what is best for their own children,” Friel said.
The lawyers represented 25 low-income families who claimed that the district’s policy discriminated against them by failing to advertise access to donated uniforms. The suit claimed that the families felt obligated to buy uniforms, estimated at $30 apiece, even though it meant reducing their food budgets.
In a mediated settlement reached Wednesday, the district agreed to establish a system to communicate availability of free or low-cost uniforms.
Clinton used the example of a 15-year-old Detroit boy who was shot for his $86 basketball shoes and other youngsters who have been shot over jackets or jewelry. He said that in Long Beach, as a result of the policy, “learning improved, schoolwork became more important for students than showing off what they were wearing or resenting what someone else was wearing.”
Uniforms do not stamp out individuality, Clinton said. Rather, “they slowly teach our young people one of life’s most important lessons: that what really counts is what you are and what you can become on the inside, not what you are wearing on the outside.”
Clinton said that for 10 years, the only person who pushed the subject of school uniforms on him was First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“I heard it over and over and over again,” he said. “And thanks to you, I have to listen to, ‘I told you so.’ Being able to endure ‘I told you so’ is one of the essential requirements of a successful marriage.”
As the president spoke to several thousand people in the courtyard of the elementary school, there was nothing uniform about his audience, a mix of local politicians and residents, only a few of whom wore the schools’ garb of white shirts and navy blue pants or jumpers.
Uniforms are mandatory for the 58,500 elementary and middle school students throughout the district, with each school determining what colors will predominate. However, children can opt out with parental consent, and 1% have done so, the schools report.
The issue has attracted an unusual amount of attention from the Clinton administration. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno visited Long Beach’s Will Rogers Middle School in December to make the points raised by Clinton on Saturday.
But Donald Erickson, a UCLA professor of education who has studied the impact of the policy throughout the district, said during Reno’s visit that the uniforms leveled the playing field for students, making it more difficult to tell who is rich and who is poor.
Long Beach has been inundated with inquiries about the program, both because of its apparent success and because the city of 440,000 includes not only well-off suburbs but communities plagued with all the ills of major cities: drugs, crime, racial tension and gangs.
In August, Gov. Pete Wilson signed a bill authorizing California school districts to implement a dress code. Oakland, which is another large district that mixes the very wealthy and very poor, will begin a mandatory uniform program in the fall. A number of school districts in Los Angeles County also are turning to uniforms, including the Monrovia, West Covina, Lynwood and Rowland Heights school districts. More than one-third of the 600-plus schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District will require them this fall.
Other states, among them New York, Virginia, Georgia, Louisiana and Maryland, have passed laws authorizing uniforms.