Creating Safe and Drug-Free Schools: An Action Guide - September 1996

A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n


At the direction of President Clinton, U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley sent a Manual on School Uniforms to every school district in the country in March 1996. Below is an excerpt from the manual as well as answers to some commonly asked questions on school uniforms. For a copy of the complete manual, please call 800-624-0100. The full text is also available through the U.S. Department of Education World Wide Web site at

School Uniforms: Why They Work and Where They Are

A safe and disciplined learning environment is the first requirement of a good school. Young people who are safe and secure, who learn basic American values and the essentials of good citizenship, are better students. In response to growing levels of violence in the Nation's schools, many parents, teachers, and school officials have come to see school uniforms as one positive and creative way to reduce discipline problems and increase school safety. They observed that the adoption of school uniform policies can promote school safety, improve discipline, and enhance the learning environment. The potential benefits of school uniforms include:

As a result, many local communities are deciding to adopt school uniform policies as part of an overall program to improve school safety and discipline. California, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, New York, Tennessee, Utah, and Virginia have enacted school uniform regulations. Many large public school systems--including Baltimore, Cincinnati, Dayton, Detroit, Los Angeles, Long Beach, Miami, Memphis, Milwaukee, Nashville, New Orleans, Phoenix, Seattle, and St. Louis--have schools with either voluntary or mandatory uniform policies, mostly in elementary and middle schools. In addition, many private and parochial schools have required uniforms for a number of years. Still other schools have implemented dress codes to encourage a safe environment by, for example, prohibiting clothes with certain language or gang colors.

Users' Guide to Adopting a School Uniform Policy

The decision to adopt a uniform policy is made by States, local school districts, and schools. For uniforms to be a success, as with all other school initiatives, parents must be involved. The following information is provided to assist parents, teachers, and school leaders in determining whether to adopt a school uniform policy.

1. Get parents involved from the beginning.

Parental support of a uniform policy is critical for success. Indeed, the strongest push for school uniforms in recent years has come from parent groups who want better discipline in their children's schools. Parent groups have actively lobbied schools to create uniform policies and have often led school task forces that have drawn up uniform guidelines. Many schools that have successfully created a uniform policy survey parents first to gauge support for school uniform requirements and then seek parental input in designing the uniform. Parent support is also essential for encouraging students to wear the uniform.

2. Protect students' religious expression.

A school uniform policy must accommodate students whose religious beliefs are substantially burdened by a uniform requirement. As U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley stated in Religious Expression in Public Schools, a guide he sent to superintendents throughout the Nation on August 10, 1995:

Students may display religious messages on items of clothing to the same extent that they are permitted to display other comparable messages. Religious messages may not be singled out for suppression, but rather are subject to the same rules as generally apply to comparable messages. When wearing particular attire, such as yarmulkes and head scarves, during the school day is part of students' religious practice, under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act schools generally may not prohibit the wearing of such items.

3. Protect students' other rights of expression.

A uniform policy may not prohibit students from wearing or displaying expressive items--for example, a button showing support for a political candidate--so long as such items do not independently contribute to disruption by substantially interfering with discipline or with the rights of others. Thus, for example, a uniform policy may prohibit students from wearing a button bearing a gang insignia. A uniform policy may also prohibit items that undermine the integrity of the uniform, notwithstanding their expressive nature, such as a sweatshirt that bears a political message but also covers or replaces the type of shirt required by the uniform policy.

4. Determine whether to have a voluntary or mandatory school uniform policy.

Some schools have adopted wholly voluntary school uniform policies that permit students freely to choose whether and under what circumstances they will wear the school uniform. Alternatively, some schools have determined that it is both warranted and more effective to adopt a mandatory uniform policy.

5. When a mandatory school uniform policy is adopted, determine whether to have an "opt out" provision.

In most cases, school districts with mandatory policies allow students, normally with parental consent, to "opt out" of the school uniform requirements.

Some schools have determined, however, that a mandatory policy with no "opt out" provision is necessary to address a disruptive atmosphere. A Phoenix, Arizona, school, for example, adopted a mandatory policy requiring students to wear school uniforms or attend another public school. That Phoenix school uniform policy was recently upheld by a State trial court in Arizona. However, in the absence of a finding that disruption of the learning environment has reached a point where other lesser measures have been or would be ineffective, a mandatory school uniform policy without an "opt out" provision could be vulnerable to legal challenge.

6. Do not require students to wear a message.

Schools should not impose a form of expression on students by requiring them to wear uniforms bearing a substantive message, such as a political message.

7. Assist families that need financial help.

In many cases, school uniforms are less expensive than the clothing that students typically wear to school. Nonetheless, the cost of purchasing a uniform may be a burden on some families. School districts with uniform policies should make provisions for students whose families are unable to afford uniforms. Many have done so. These are some examples of the types of assistance: (1) the school district provides uniforms to students who cannot afford to purchase them, (2) community and business leaders provide uniforms or contribute financial support for uniforms, (3) school parents work together to make uniforms available for economically disadvantaged students, and (4) used uniforms from graduates are made available to incoming students.

8. Treat school uniforms as part of an overall safety program.

Uniforms by themselves cannot solve all the problems of school discipline, but they can be one positive contributing factor to discipline and safety. Other initiatives that many schools have used in conjunction with uniforms to address specific problems in their community include aggressive truancy reduction initiatives, drug prevention efforts, student-athlete drug testing, community efforts to limit gangs, a zero tolerance policy for weapons, character education classes, and conflict resolution programs. Working with parents, teachers, students, and principals can make a uniform policy part of a strong overall safety program, one that is broadly supported in the community.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why is the President promoting school uniforms?

For the past 3 years, the President has actively been supporting activities that reduce violence and crime in schools. The Clinton administration is always looking for ideas or concepts that will help create safer schools. After talking to and working with schools that found reductions in crime and violence after adopting a uniform policy, the Clinton administration drafted the manual to assist communities that want to implement school uniform policies.

Is the President mandating that schools have a school uniform policy?

The President believes that it is a local decision whether to adopt a uniform policy. The school uniform manual developed by the Departments of Education and Justice merely provides guidance and assistance to local school districts and schools.

Is the cost of school uniforms prohibitive?

School uniforms are usually less expensive than the clothes students typically wear to school. Further, the manual gives some suggestions for schools that want to assist families in need of financial help to purchase uniforms.

Does a school uniform policy rob students of their individuality?

School uniform policies permit children to wear expressive items, such as a button that shows support for a political candidate, or a religious piece of clothing, such as a yarmulke or head scarf.

Will a school see reductions in crime, violence, and disruptions simply by adopting a uniform policy?

School uniform policies must be viewed as part of a comprehensive safe school strategy and should be combined with such other actions as training security personnel, implementing zero tolerance policies, and starting after-school programs.

Is the Department of Education recommending a specific uniform for schools?

Individual schools and school districts that choose to adopt uniform policies should determine what their uniforms are.

What is the most common school uniform?

No one style of uniform is predominant. The uniforms that schools have adopted cover a wide range of options for individual schools and school districts to consider.
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