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School uniforms in Pinellas County praised by some, opposed as infringement of liberty by others

ST. PETERSBURG

She calls them her little work force.

They arrive daily in navy and khaki pants and skirts and white, navy and light blue shirts.

If she spies a loose waistband in the bunch, she whips out the zip ties and threads them through two belt loops for a quick fix. If a new student shows up in jeans, she guides him or her to one of several closets, where boxes and boxes of uniforms are divided into S, M, L, shirts, pants, shorts, and skirts.

Take a few, she says.

"When you look like you're ready to work, your mind shifts," says Sue Boyd, principal at Azalea Elementary, home of the oldest mandatory uniform policy in Pinellas County public schools.

Boyd, who has led A-rated Azalea for 11 years, is a believer. But mention mandatory school uniforms, and you're likely to hear a chorus of diverging opinions.

"What's next?" says Cary Siegel, a father of five school-aged children and president of Carwise Middle's school advisory council. "They need to talk and walk the same?"

On Tuesday, Pinellas school superintendent Julie Janssen unveiled a proposal to require uniforms in all schools through the eighth grade as soon as next year. Right now, 23 schools mandate uniforms — all elementaries.

"If you walk on campus of a school that has a uniform, it's a totally different feel," says Janssen. "It levels the playing field for economics and it makes the statement that we're all here for the same reason."

But the most-often cited research suggests that as much as educators and some parents like uniforms, there is no evidence that they are responsible for fewer disciplinary issues or better grades.

"Instituting a uniform policy can be viewed as analogous to cleaning and brightly painting a deteriorating building in that on the one hand it grabs our immediate attention," wrote researchers David Brunsma and Kerry Rockquemore in a 2001 study on the subject for The Journal of Educational Research. "On the other hand, it is only a coat of paint."

Even with uniforms, Brunsma argues, distinctions are clear — some have newer uniforms, better jewelry, more expensive shoes. But talk to a mom like Shelli Cutting, and she says it's easy and inexpensive, running about $20 or so per uniform.

"There's no fight," Cutting says of helping daughter Faith, a third-grader at Azalea, get ready for school. "It is what you have to wear."

It stifles creativity, counters Keri Halpain, who has a daughter in fourth grade and a son in eighth. She believes uniforms would interfere with the important lessons her children are learning on how to dress themselves appropriately.

"I'm absolutely against it," says Halpain, president of the PTA at Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle School in St. Petersburg.

The American Civil Liberties Union agrees, saying a policy like the one the Pinellas school district is considering obstructs personal freedom.

"It is an arbitrary, heavy-handed intrusion into the most fundamental individual rights: the rights of parents to determine how best to rear their children and the right of students to express their individuality, subject only to parental control," says Joyce Hamilton Henry, director of the mid Florida regional office for the ACLU.

Henry said that if Pinellas did move to required uniforms, it must include an opt-out for students with religious objections.

Since Janssen announced mandatory uniforms among a slew of other proposed reforms, some School Board members applauded the idea. But it's also been criticized as a distraction.

University of South Florida education professor Sherman Dorn wrote about the proposal on his blog, comparing it to a move Bill Clinton made in 1995 when he was in political hot water: Clinton applauded the school district in Long Beach, Calif., for requiring uniforms.

Siegel, the father of five, said he immediately wondered why such a controversial idea would surface now. "With the significant issues facing our school district, I think it's surprising they would spend any effort on the dress code," he says.

Both Halpain and Siegel noted that while public schools are entertaining uniforms, the corporate workplace has increasingly adopted more flexible dress codes over the last 20 years.

Janssen says she doesn't pretend uniforms are the cure-all for student achievement.

"I think it's one piece that takes away another distraction," she says. "I think it sends a message that we're serious about education, and it's just making one point among the hundreds of others."

Around the corner from Azalea Elementary, Azalea Middle School principal Teresa Anderson says she understands why parents oppose it. Two years ago, after all, it was parents who voted down her school's effort to impose uniforms.

But Anderson sees the issue from a different perspective.

Every morning, she stands in the courtyard, greeting children as they arrive. With each "Good morning!" she homes in on a host of dress code violations: ripped clothes, low-cut blouses, baggy jeans, spaghetti straps, leggings topped by a too-short shirt.

Silly though they may seem, these infractions threaten to distract from the reason students come to school, Anderson says.

"Sweetheart," she calls to an eighth-grade girl wearing skin-tight denim shorts with rolled cuffs. "Are those fingertip length?"

After stretching her fingers to her sides, the girl agrees to unroll the cuffs until they comply.

Within 30 minutes before first period, Anderson and her colleagues have zip-tied at least three pairs of saggy pants, draped one low-cut blouse with a jacket, ordered one girl to cover her exposed back and sent about 10 students to the office to correct their clothing.

If uniforms were required, Anderson said, this part of her job would be moot.

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or rcatalanello@sptimes.com.

FAST FACTS

What's next?

Pinellas County superintendent Julie Janssen introduced mandatory uniforms for elementary and middle schools as one part of a wide-ranging proposal of school reforms affecting student assignment. Her administration is working on the details now, but expects to hold at least two community forums on the plan in October. Then, the plan will go before the School Board for a first reading on Nov. 9 and a final vote on Dec. 7.

School uniforms in Pinellas County praised by some, opposed as infringement of liberty by others 09/26/10 [Last modified: Sunday, September 26, 2010 12:46am]

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