Uniform Acceptance Is Anything But

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On the first day of class last fall, Mulholland Middle School sixth-grader Elizabeth Shamlian wore her new school uniform: blue trousers and a white-collared shirt.

Then she went home and told her parents, "I'm never going to wear this again."

She hasn't. And in the sea of adolescents who cross the open courtyards at Mulholland these days, nobody else is in uniform either.

The New York City Board of Education--which runs the only system in the nation larger than the Los Angeles Unified School District--voted last week to require its half-million elementary school students to wear uniforms. New Yorkers hope they will help keep students safe, inspire professionalism and reduce tardiness, disciplinary problems and materialism.

Those goals were once the talk among educators and politicians in California, when the Legislature made it legal in 1995 for public schools to require uniforms.

But three years after coming into fashion, uniforms have not proved to be an elixir for Los Angeles city schools. The initial rush has slowed to a trickle.

In 1995, 314 Los Angeles city schools embraced the idea, more than in any other public school district in the nation. Since then, only 40 more campuses have enlisted. And at many schools where uniforms were once the rage, the look has been pushed to the back of the closet.

Keeping a student body in uniform is hampered by federal court rulings that have abolished mandatory public school policies on free speech grounds. The result in the Los Angeles school district has been a hodgepodge of enforcement, with even the most strict campuses allowing parents to opt out.

Without the support of parents, say educators, uniforms quickly disappear.

Although uniforms are far from dead here, the rhetoric that surrounded their introduction has quieted. Wilson captured the mood of the times when, in 1994, he said, "It used to be that students only had to worry about putting together clothes that matched. Today, the wrong combination can get you killed."

Looking back, Mulholland Principal Alfredo Tarin said, "There was this sense of urgency. The parents brought it all up, and we asked them to be supportive. But now, it is not the overriding issue it was then."

At Loreto Street Elementary in Highland Park, which adopted uniforms in 1995, project coordinator Miguel Mendivil said interest has fallen.

"A couple of years back, we were at 98% participation," said Mendivil. "Now, it is maybe 60% to 80% of the students. The parents aren't pushing it like they were."

Stuart Biegel, a UCLA professor of education and law, said better social and economic conditions are probably why. "Crime has gone down so significantly," he said. "We are three years further away from the disturbances in central L.A. I think uniforms aren't as pressing an issue."

Experts say the benefits of school uniforms remain unproven and largely anecdotal. Bill Modzeleski, director of Safe and Drug Free Schools for the U.S. Department of Education, said proper studies have so far been too difficult and expensive to conduct. Only about 3% of public schools, he said, have uniforms.

Long Beach Unified officials say behavior and punctuality have improved since 1994, when the district became the nation's first public school system to require uniforms. But educators outside the district say it is unclear whether uniforms made the difference.

Myron H. Dembo, a professor of educational psychology at USC, said he has seen no evidence that uniforms alone improve schools.

"Chances are that uniforms in a school are tied to other factors," Dembo said. "The work that parents have to do to get the uniforms forced them to buy into and to support the school. Students could be in bikinis and if the parents are supportive, the school will do better."

There remain Los Angeles city schools where administrators inspect youngsters each morning, sending slackers to the office to change into loaner outfits. While these advocates say uniforms form a shield against trouble, students roll their eyes at the rule.

"I don't think the way you dress is gang-related," said 13-year-old Laura Shebber, an eighth-grader at Fulton Middle School in Van Nuys.

Shebber acknowledges being a chronic dress code violator, who last week was forced to exchange her blue velour top for a white dress shirt with "Fulton" written in ink on the back. "How you carry yourself," she said, "is more important."

Los Angeles Unified set a goal three years ago of having uniforms at all of its 668 schools. So far, 354 city schools are listed as having a uniform policy, most of them elementary schools. Of those, however, the district cannot say how many youngsters now wear uniforms every day.

Many schools with uniform policies say most students don't bother. For example, in the San Fernando Valley's Cluster 6--which serves Reseda, Encino and parts of Van Nuys--none of the 16 schools with uniform policies reports that most of the students participate.

Of 18 schools listed as having uniforms in the district's Cluster 13--which includes Boyle Heights, El Sereno and Highland Park--only Nightingale Middle School keeps most students in uniform.

"The initiative has to come from the parents," said L.A. Unified spokeswoman Socorro Serrano. Echoing the district's official policy, Serrano said uniforms fight gangs and violence. If interest at schools has dropped, she said, it is because "there are just other priorities that they are dealing with first."

Carmen Chavez, owner of Crown School Uniforms, started her Sun Valley business three years ago, partly on the basis of the new California law. She said business was very good in the beginning, but now she survives largely on parochial school orders.

"I can count on the private schools," Chavez said. "In the public school, even if they have uniforms, sometimes all that means is a certain color shirt or pants they can buy at Target."

Opponents of uniforms in public schools say they are not surprised that interest has declined in Los Angeles.

"The uniform is like a bandage," said Millikan Middle School Principal Norman Isaacs, who has soured on the idea over the past three years. "It solves some of the symptoms but not the real problem."

But politicians continue to promote uniforms as a way to instill the order of parochial school life in the unruly world of public education, where the spread of hip-hop styles has many worrying about 8-year-olds dressing like hoodlums.

President Clinton cited Long Beach's mandatory uniform policy Thursday at a news conference, releasing the first-ever national survey on school crime. The president called for public school uniforms in his 1996 State of the Union Address, spurring national interest in the idea, say educators.

Randy Ward, state-appointed administrator of the Compton Unified School District, was principal of Whittier Elementary in Long Beach in 1990 when it became the first school in the district to adopt uniforms. Ward, who spurred the introduction of uniforms to Compton's troubled schools this year, said they can be a valuable tool.

But, he added, everyone must participate for them to work.

"If it is voluntary, I don't consider it to be a uniform policy," Ward said. "If some kids are wearing a uniform and others are not, they might as well be in Raiders jackets and Lakers jerseys."

Elizabeth Schroeder, an associate director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California--which sued the district to make it easier for Long Beach parents to opt out--said the focus on uniforms is a distraction.

"It's an easy way for a school district to approach a problem that has much deeper roots: overcrowding, lack of school books, uncredentialed teachers," said Schroeder, who added that the ACLU is not opposed to optional uniforms in public schools.

Still, she said, "It is not possible to correct the evils of the school system by putting a uniform on a 6-year-old."

Advocates, however, say that uniforms are a good place to start.

"We have had a huge decrease in tardies and fights," said Assistant Principal Robert Krell, who enforces the uniform code at Pacoima Middle School.

Krell is a fierce proponent. Of the 12 students at Pacoima whose parents have excused them from wearing uniforms, he said, "They don't care if their children are safe or not."

At Fulton Middle School in Van Nuys, Assistant Principal Lessie Caballero swears by uniforms. "I can't explain exactly why," said Caballero, "but there is a real change in the students when they are in uniform. They are better behaved. They come to school to work."

Which is not to say students are happy to comply. Uniforms, at least among middle school students, are about as popular as high-water pants.

The cuffs of Rafael Maiez's pants hang so low they sweep the halls at Fulton as he walks to class. But not for long. At 10 past eight on a recent morning, Caballero called Maiez into the school office and made the boy staple up the hem of his navy blue trousers.

Some seventh-graders at Fulton threatened two weeks ago to boycott the uniforms.

"If 1,600 students refuse to wear the uniform, there is not much we can do. They will win," Caballero said. Abandoning uniforms, she added, would be a big mistake.

But at nearby Mulholland Middle School, where the more casually dressed student body is similar in every other way to Fulton's, Principal Tarin said it would probably make little difference.

"I will compare my school's expulsions and tardies to anyone in the district," he said. "I like the idea of uniforms. I'd like to see all of my students in them. But I would rather use my time to improve education at this school."

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