WASHINGTON- School uniforms have been popular in Maryland since at least 1987, and the dozen years since have seen only an increase in that trend.
More than 15 percent of Maryland schools — 198 of 1,256 basic public schools — have a uniform policy, according to a Capital News Service survey.
The Maryland figure far outstrips the national average of 3 percent in 1998, according to a survey by the National Center for Education Statistics.
Cherry Hill Elementary in Baltimore City made national news in 1987 as the first public school to adopt a uniform policy. Now, 120 schools in Baltimore City alone abide by a dress code. Queen Anne’s County has established a 35-member committee that is deciding whether to create a uniform policy for all public elementary, middle and high schools. The Harford County Public School System has a pilot dress code for three elementary schools.
By now, other schools in Maryland have had time to evaluate Baltimore City’s policy and establish similar codes, said Ronald Peiffer, assistant state superintendent of the Maryland State Department of Education.
“Because there was such an early success in Baltimore City, other school systems are finding it philosophically compatible to what they want to accomplish in their schools,” Peiffer said.
Contributing to the higher-than-national-average uniform use may be the close contact that Maryland schools maintain with each other, Peiffer said.
“There is a lot more communication between school systems here than in other states. People communicate and share their ideas a lot,” Peiffer said.
Another reason for this trend is that Maryland contains significant urban centers, like Baltimore City, that may use uniforms as a weapon against school security problems, said Darrell Capwell, spokesman for the American Federation of Teachers.
“Sometimes you find more uniform policies in urban settings that have to address problems of violence more than rural settings,” Capwell said.
Uniforms are more than a solution to urban troubles, says Peiffer.
“They provide a sense of unity and commitment on the part of the students. They also prevent students from stealing each others’ clothes or wearing distracting clothing,” Peiffer said.
Courts have held that public school dress codes must be voluntary to preserve students’ constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression. That hasn’t stopped many school districts from imposing such voluntary policies to prevent the distractions that clothing can provide, said Eric Schwartz, deputy executive director of the Maryland Association of Boards of Education.
Some schools can, with the permission of the courts, create mandatory uniform policies. Twelve public schools in Prince George’s County have mandatory dress codes.
Uniforms do have their critics.
Loren Siegel, director of the public education department of the American Civil Liberties Union has called them “a Band Aid solution to a set of problems that defy easy answers.” Instead of politicians spending time changing the way children dress, more time should be spent on replenishing dwindling education funds and thinning overcrowded classrooms, her printed statement said.
Students’ rights versus the school’s rights must be taken into consideration when deciding on a uniform policy, said Suzanne Smith, legal program administrator of the ACLU Maryland chapter.
“Students don’t leave their rights at the schoolhouse door. Parents and children should have input into what the children wear and not put it in the hands of the schools,” Smith said.
Parents do ultimately decide if their children comply, said Schwartz.
“The school must involve the parents before they create a school uniform policy,” Schwartz said. “Often it is the parents who are raising the issue.”
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