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Peer Pressure Puts Wrinkle in a School’s Uniform Policy

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For the past year, Kellie Scannell and her 11-year-old daughter have been engaged in a battle that plagues nearly every parent with children old enough to care about what they wear.

Deirdre, a fifth-grader at Garden Grove Elementary School, wants to dress in trendy designer blue jeans and pretty patterned shirts. Scannell wants her daughter to sport more conservative and less expensive clothes.

When her daughter’s school pioneered the first voluntary uniform policy in the county two years ago, Scannell thought the standoff was resolved. Like other parents and administrators, she thought the uniforms would allow the kids to focus more on academics and less on fashion.

Instead, Scannell and other parents say the volunteer policy has backfired by exacerbating, instead of easing, clothing conflicts between children and their peers and children and their parents.

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Some now wonder whether a mandatory uniform policy might make more sense, while others question whether there is a need for any policy.

Two years after the experiment began, only a handful of students in each class still wear the uniform. Most of them say they don’t like sticking out from the crowd and are sometimes teased.

“Nobody wants to wear them because they want to be cool,” said sixth-grader Justin Cowles. “They call you a geek.”

Justin doesn’t wear a store-bought uniform, but any navy blue pants, shorts, skirt or jumper coupled with a plain red, white or blue shirt qualifies as one. Instead, the 12-year-old said he tries to conform with the school’s strict dress code.

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The dress code--which is mandatory--bans oversize pants, hats, bike shorts, leggings not covered by skirts, combat boots, tank and crop tops, bib overalls and any clothing with logos, lettering or pictures.

Kids are also encouraged, said Principal Elroy Peterson, to wear the school colors, which were changed from black and orange--the school’s mascot is a tiger--to red, white and blue to match the uniforms.

Dressed in a bright red polo shirt, fifth-grader Kevin Alldredge said he usually wears a uniform because he wants to follow the school rules and stay out of trouble.

But trying to live up to the school’s standards has sometimes made him the butt of jokes, he said.

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The other kids “ask, why do I wear uniforms?” he said. “They call me a uniform jerk. But I just ignore them.”

Others who tried wearing the uniforms when they were first adopted said they soon felt out of step with their peers, and eventually stopped wearing them.

On the first day of voluntary uniforms, hundreds of kids--more than half the school--showed up in blue pants, shorts, jumpers and white shirts. But within months, the numbers had dwindled dramatically.

“No one else was wearing them,” said 11-year-old Jennifer Mao. “I was embarrassed. Only the little kids were wearing them.”

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Principal Peterson said that on any given day, 30% to 50% of the school is in uniform. But when visiting the campus, the numbers seem much less.

On Thursday, a handful of children from primarily lower grades--where uniforms are more readily accepted--appeared to be wearing them.

Peterson, a firm believer in uniforms, said he approached parents with the idea in 1994 because he thought it would teach children the importance of dressing appropriately, make it easier for them to concentrate on their studies and eliminate the constant tug-of-war with parents over what to wear to school.

Unlike some other schools in the state that have adopted uniform dress codes because of crime, Peterson said he hopes only to better an already excellent learning environment.

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“I wasn’t expecting any dramatic improvement,” he said. “I was expecting that children who leave here will be able to enter society. We had that before and this is just one more piece of the puzzle.”

But some parents say the school never needed such a strict code and that--because only some children wear the uniforms under the voluntary policy--it has actually heightened their kids’ awareness of what they wear.

“I was lukewarm on the idea,” said Marla Gagnon, vice president of the Parent Teacher Assn. “I didn’t think there was any reason for it. There are no gangs in our school.”

Although she also initially thought that uniforms might ease the problems of dressing her two children, ages 9 and 11, she said the opposite is true.

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Third-grader Greg usually wears the uniform, but fifth-grader Kaitlyn “absolutely hates” it and has stopped wearing it, Gagnon said.

Even firm supporters of uniforms have stopped making their children wear them.

Kellie Scannell’s younger daughter, 7-year-old Caitlin, usually wears her uniform without complaint. But when Deirdre started complaining about wanting to wear her own clothes instead of a uniform, Scannell finally relented. But she makes certain that her daughter always conforms to the school’s dress code.

“The biggest problem is that they feel they are being singled out, even punished for wearing them,” she said.

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Marlene Ackermann, a parent and instructional aide at the school, said the voluntary dress code was especially hard on disabled and other students with special needs, who account for roughly one-sixth of the 619-student campus.

At first, she dressed both her children, 10-year-old Brandon, who is in a wheelchair, and 9-year-old Melanie, in the uniforms.

But soon, she noticed that most of the school’s 108 special-needs children were still dressed in the red, white and blue clothing, while the rest of the students reverted to street clothes.

“The special-ed kids were the only ones left wearing them because they don’t choose their clothes,” she said. “I stopped using them because [my son] doesn’t need to be stigmatized more than he is already.”

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The scenario has repeated itself at two other elementary schools that, following Garden Grove’s example, adopted their own voluntary uniform policies.

At Sheridan Way Elementary School in Ventura, students have all but stopped wearing the uniforms made available at the beginning of this year, said Jerry Dannenberg, an assistant superintendent for the Ventura Unified School District.

And at Arroyo West School in Moorpark, parents say that after uniformed children were teased by classmates for being too “poor” to afford designer clothes, most stopped wearing them.

These experiences have some school administrators and parents wondering whether wearing school uniforms is an all-or-nothing proposal.

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If all the kids are wearing them, they say, no one can be singled out.

“Unless it is mandatory and children realize that that is the way it is, it is not going to happen,” said Sima Walker, whose daughter attends Arroyo West.

Taking advantage of a 1995 state law permitting schools to require students to wear uniforms, Peterson, the Garden Grove principal, said he will ask Simi Valley board of education trustees to make uniforms mandatory next year.

Three Ventura County schools have already taken that step. In the fall, nearly every child at Rio Del Valle Junior High, Rio Plaza Elementary and Emilie Ritchen Elementary in Oxnard will sport a uniform. Under the law, parents may apply for waivers.

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Two other Oxnard schools--Fred Williams Elementary and E. O. Green Middle School--will open next year with voluntary policies.

Jeffrey Baarstad, an associate superintendent for the Hueneme Elementary School District, said both schools considered making uniforms mandatory but decided it wasn’t necessary. Both have excellent disciplinary records, he said, and no problems with gangs.

In addition, getting a mandatory policy approved by the board would mean fighting parents who oppose requiring uniforms. The same problem may eventually keep Garden Grove School from making its policy mandatory.

Although Peterson says 75% of parents who responded to a 1994 survey expressed support for uniforms, some teachers and board members have questioned whether the results reliably reflect parental support for the idea.

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Calling the issue “too controversial” to discuss, several teachers declined to be interviewed.

Simi Valley Unified School District board members have mixed feelings about requiring the uniforms.

Trustee Norman Walker said he believes a mandatory policy would be more effective.

“I don’t know if a voluntary program is the way to go,” he said. “I have discovered that those schools that use it on a nonvoluntary basis have less discipline problems, and behavioral problems in the classroom are minimized.”

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But Trustee Debbie Sandland sees no reason for the district to adopt such a drastic dress code.

“I don’t see any need,” she said. “If the [principal] has behavioral problems down there, I want him to address them another way. I want the kids to learn how to deal with conflict. We are in the business of education, not of controlling and mandating a certain dress so that it won’t cause conflict.”


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