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School uniforms alone unlikely to make schools safer, UD youth style expert says

NEWARK, DE.--Simply adopting school uniforms is unlikely to make schools safer and administrators and parents who are considering requiring students to wear uniforms should proceed cautiously, advises Janet Hethorn. Getting input from youngsters and discussing all the implications of such a policy is important, the University of Delaware professor of consumer studies and assistant director for design in the UD Center for Historic Architecture and Design says.

Hethorn, whose research for the past decade has focused on issues of youth style, including gang involvement, offers this analogy: If a school district had serious difficulties with its student transportation system, officials and parents would scoff at the notion that repainting the buses would solve the problems. But, many of these same administrators and parents believe problems with student behavior can be solved by putting uniforms on the pupils.

"There are a lot of assumptions made about school uniforms and what they can and can’t do, and many of those assumptions are incorrect," Hethorn said. "There are also side effects to implementing a school-uniform policy, and those side effects often aren’t taken into consideration when the policy is decided."

Although she said she recognizes that the nationwide interest in uniforms is motivated by understandable frustration and good intentions, she advises schools to take the time to make an informed policy decision. Adolescents experiment with different styles of appearance as a necessary part of defining their identity, and adults should understand that this is a complex part of growing up, Hethorn said.

"In a time when we’re all concerned with recognizing and respecting diversity, we need to ask: ‘Who gets to decide what the uniform will be? What group does it represent, and what groups are left out?’" she said. "I’m not telling schools what they should or shouldn’t do, but there are a lot of variables in the mix."

Some schools that have mandated uniforms have reported improved student learning and behavior, Hethorn said. But, she added, those uniform policies were generally part of numerous other educational changes, which might account for the improvements. She also pointed out that adults are advocating more formal student attire at the same time that their own dress in the workplace is becoming more casual.

Although schools frequently cite youth gangs and violence as reasons to require student uniforms, Hethorn’s research has found that young people most often communicate their membership in gangs in ways that aren’t easily covered by a school uniform policy. Tattoos, hand signs and body posture are more reliable signs of gang identity than what adults often believe is the case—wearing a particular color or style of clothing, she said. Her research also found that subtle clothing variations, such as wearing socks or a belt in a certain way or turning one point of a collar in or out, can be used to communicate gang membership.

"Gang appearance that is linked to behavior must definitely be identified and omitted from school campuses," Hethorn and Loren Evenrud, a supervisor with the Minneapolis Park, Minn., police department, wrote in an article in the National School Safety Center newsletter. "[But], it is fallacious to assume that uniforms will eliminate gang representation in schools."

To make schools safer, Hethorn and Evinrude suggested several guidelines:

  • Focus on behavior. Schools must intervene to stop students who are threatening or intimidating others, but they must be careful to target the behavior, not just label a particular style of appearance as gang-related or dangerous.
  • Involve students. If a school administration decides to implement student uniforms or a dress code, students should take part in the discussions to develop those policies.
  • Develop flexible and fair codes. Again, student input can be critical in identifying what various styles mean. At the same time, dress codes should be flexible, because fashions and their meanings change rapidly.
  • Immediately report and document school crime. Accurate records allow police and administrators to develop strategies that address safety problems in the schools.

Hethorn earned her doctorate from the University of Minnesota and joined UD three years ago.

Contact: Ann Manser (302) 831-1155,

Sept. 8, 2000