School Uniforms Encourage Equality

Leonia Kallir Kurgan is a marriage/family/child therapist and psychoanalyst in Santa Monica

Traditionally, American schoolchildren have not been required to wear uniforms, with the exception of parochial and a few private schools. Certainly Littleton killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were not required to wear prescribed school uniforms. Instead, they wore long black trench coats to school--the uniform of a gang called the Trench Coat Mafia.

Adolescence is traditionally a time to practice different roles, and Harris and Klebold played out a particular role where they identified themselves with Adolf Hitler’s values. The uniforms they wore were reminiscent of the Nazi regime. The killings they carefully planned took place on April 20, which was Hitler’s birthday.

They were loners, taunted and badly treated by their jock peers, not accepted by the so-called “in” crowd. They resented this but contributed to it by their dress and behavior. We do not know how deeply disturbed they were. Harris was being treated with Luvox, a mood-altering drug.


Maybe they would have done what they did no matter what, but I wonder how the daily wearing of the trench coat uniform helped maintain Harris and Kiebold’s cruel and evil intent.

I think most teenagers are terrified to be different. They desperately try to conform to social mores, whether it be behavior or dress code. I remember how traumatized my friend’s 15-year-old son was when he immigrated to Los Angeles from South Africa. He was not quite sure what was “cool” to wear every day to school. In South Africa, he had had a prescribed compulsory school uniform he could rebel against. Here, in America, nothing was clear. The boy suffered acute anxiety. Of course, there were other factors, but the lack of a defined uniform was a major cause of his stress and unhappiness.

Many families in America suffer the trauma of feeling like outsiders based on differences in wealth, ethnicity, race and origin. Not wearing a school uniform may have started off as an effort to be democratic. But it can end in a painful situation for an already vulnerable teenager.

Perhaps we should rethink whether our children should wear clearly defined uniforms to school every day. Without adequate parental or school restrictions, matters can and do get out of control.

It is important for us as a society to remember that adolescents are immature and that maturity only comes with age. There was no dress code at Columbine High School that expressed the values of the community, the school and the parents. If there had been one, it might have served as a psychological limit, providing the students with security and a sense of belonging.

Perhaps it is simplistic to focus on the issue of school uniforms, but we have to start somewhere. Maybe a small thing like wearing a school uniform may have made a difference to what did happen.