My Turn: Dress code won't change values

Posted: Thursday, June 24, 2004

In New York City I worked in a school in a gang-infested neighborhood. In an effort to root out gang colors, our school considered mandating school uniforms during my second year. It was also purported that the new code would have a positive impact on discipline problems, class differences and immodesty. I decided to have a classroom debate about the topic.

The students prepared their sides, with a large majority supporting school uniforms, reflecting the values of their parents. One student, Ricardo, argued passionately in favor of self-expression and against the dress code. I listened intently but was not prepared to help my students see this issue from some other perspective. Much like the recent Empire article, I could only conceptualize either being in favor of a policy that imposed my values or against it based on the rights of an individual to self-expression. It was especially difficult for me to support Ricardo, because I knew the evils of gangs. How could it be legitimate to express oneself by advertising a hurtful, violent organization?

If I could go back in time, that debate would be one of the moments I would most like to revisit and redo. In lieu of time travel, I offer another perspective on the Juneau-Douglas High School policy.

The dress code policy, according to site council parent Nancy DeCherney, is a "statement of values." My questions are as follows: Will this imposed policy have a positive impact on anyone's values? Will the person underneath the full-length top, sensible shoes and bead bracelet be a better person? Does a stricter dress code address the real problems?

Educational institutions teach values, especially when they make policy? This policy teaches our young adults that their participation in school decisionmaking does not matter. It teaches them that what we do value is imitation of the attitudes of "intelligent, respectable" people. As matter of fact, it teaches students that schools are not interested in their perceptions at all. Why do students choose to advertise beer and wear "provocative" clothing? You could express yourself by advertising catsup or wearing a parka, but why are beer and revealing clothing so popular? The only way to find out is to ask the students. Knowing how others think and feel is the bedrock upon which community is built.

In the academic year to come, some people might measure the effectiveness of the policy by compliance. Are students dressed appropriately for school? Even if the policy creates this change in behavior, I still question its wisdom.

I suggest we reach for the stars. Let us test the policy by monitoring the interracial situation, level of violence and frequency of sexual harassment. Let us see if the greater Juneau community becomes a safer, more respectable place as a result. Are not those the core issues schools are concerned with?

The fact that the school administration has the power to tell students how to dress does not mean they have the power to impose values. As a mother of two small children and teacher in the district, I do not accept the false dichotomy of imposed standards or "anything goes" in terms of dress. Of course, it is much easier to cover up problems than to get to the bottom of them. If we are interested in community, then schools ought to model the community building process. Kids have to be given the opportunity in schools to make moral choices independent of external pressures. They have to be trusted to use their wonderful thinking skills to figure out with us how one ought to act and dress. I suspect that approach would be more effective for reaching our goals or building a strong community, rather than telling kids what to wear.

• Sheila Keller is a teacher for the Juneau Community Charter School.

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