Does School Discipline Over Uniform Infractions Go Too Far?

Does School Discipline Over Uniform Infractions Go Too Far?

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LONG BEACH -- Over the past few decades, students, parents and administrators have debated the merits of school uniforms. Do they minimize distractions in the classroom? Do they improve attendance? Do they increase school pride?

One common complaint expressed by students at high schools that require uniforms seems to be that uniforms don’t allow students to express themselves as individuals. However, for many students like myself attending Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD), disliking uniforms has nothing to do with them being stylistically boring -- it’s because they’re taking away from our class time.

Case in point: I was on my way to class one day when one of the school faculty stopped me for a uniform violation. I was wearing a white sheer shirt (with a white shirt underneath) when our guidelines require a solid white shirt. I was sent to On-Campus Suspension (OCS) to borrow an old used shirt and was sent to class with a one-hour detention. By the time I was allowed to return to the classroom, I had missed the first half of my Spanish instruction.

When the school year began, sheer shirts had become very popular and many young women were buying the trendy shirts off the racks. Shortly thereafter – not before -- all students were prohibited from wearing the sheer shirts at my school, Wilson High School.

While uniforms can certainly reduce distractions to students and place less economic stress on parents, many students still work hard to add their “own style” to what they wear everyday. Many students even enjoy wearing the uniforms, and adding their own unique twist.

Most of those students will tell you that school officials are being way too harsh in how they punish students for even the slightest uniform infraction.

“For students who dress properly, but might not have the exact school colors or might wear a sheer shirt with an appropriate undershirt underneath, should not be taken out of class,” said Vanessa Rodriguez, a Wilson sophomore. “They should be punished before or after school or during lunch, to be fair to their learning time.”

That’s not to say, added Rodriguez, that students don’t also go too far at times in their uniform alterations.

“Do students abuse uniforms in inappropriate ways? Yes! Girls who wear really tight shorts, a shirt with buttons open in front, a low cut undershirt, or those who wear a sheer shirt with no undershirt under and you can see their skin and bra clearly under their see-through shirt, should definitely be sent to OCS immediately because they’re at school wearing an inappropriate uniform.”

According to Wilson principal Dr. Sandy Blazer, around 15 students per day are sent to on-campus suspension for violating uniform rules.

“We give students plenty of warnings, we send letters that go out to parents and we have the uniform [guidelines] on our website, so it’s not like it’s a surprise,” Blazer said. “We try to be flexible and if students have issues, we provide free uniforms. It was the rule even before I was a principal here.”

Despite the intention of the punishment to dissuade students from breaking uniform rules, it can sometimes have the opposite effect.

“Some students wear clothes violating school uniform [rules] on purpose, just to get out of class,” said Emma Salazar, a junior at Wilson. “Uniforms are important, but there are many ways to deal with students that wouldn’t affect their learning time.”

Some community advocates agree that taking students out of class for school uniform infractions may prove to be counter-productive in certain instances.

“There needs to be a more positive way for student discipline than pulling the student out of their classes and harming their class time,” said Justine Calma, program coordinator at Khmer Girls in Action, a local non-profit whose mission is to empower Southeast Asian girls and young women.

Less obvious, however, is what exactly can be done to create an alternative for enforcing the uniform code, that won’t result in students missing class time.

Everybody has different opinions about school uniforms, but there is clearly a need for districts that have uniform codes to revisit the issue, with students and parents, of how violations are dealt with.

“I personally like uniforms– they’re unique and they usually save money for students,” said Jazmine Gonzalez, a sophomore at Wilson High. “But restricting uniforms and dress codes [in a way] that affects the student’s learning time -- that I’m against.”

Suzan Al-Shammari is a reporter for VoiceWaves, a youth-led community media outlet founded by New America Media in Long Beach, California. The project is supported by The California Endowment.