Op-Ed: School Uniforms and Parental Rights—The New Civil Rights Movement

Tuesday, May 15, 2012 1:30pm  |  COMMENTS (5)

The following is an Op-Ed by Ann Schnakenberg a Clifton, NJ mother, who has joined with other parents to form the Clifton Asserting Parental Rights (C.A.P.R.) group. C.A.P.R is currently fighting the Clifton Board of Education, which has proposed a new school uniform policy for Clifton Public Schools.

NJ Schools are experiencing a serious bullying problem, but the burgeoning problem that I am referring to is probably not the one you are thinking of. Although we live in a state with the toughest anti-bullying law in the nation when it comes to protecting the rights of students and children, somehow along the way the parents were overlooked. ‘Parental Rights’ is the new hot topic. It is now the adults who have the bullying problem.

Throughout the state of New Jersey and all across the nation parent’s rights are being challenged by school boards who are all too willing to overstep their boundaries and enter into traditional parental territory. The main cause of this new bullying dilemma in New Jersey is a law that encourages the adoption of mandatory uniform standard dress code policies. At its heart is a new social reform movement that has been flooding our country’s public school systems: the Uniform Standard Dress Movement. This is the latest educational fad to capture the attention of public school administrators and parents alike.

Driven by the fear of gang influence and disgust with saggy pants, and armed with host of moralizing anecdotal evidence, these reformers, or ‘Uniformers’, have managed to resurrect the bygone practice and popularity of sumptuary law. ‘Resisters’ believe that the prohibition of traditional casual clothing like jeans and t-shirts, and patterns such as stripes, polka dots and checks, is ridiculous. Both sides agree that kids should not dress inappropriately. Unfortunately, scientific studies and empirical evidence proving that uniform dress policies are ineffective have been tossed to the wayside. American public school students are disappearing into a sea of solid color polo’s and khaki pants. Those who wish to uniform our children are generally well meaning and full of good intentions. However some of us know all too well where that road paved with good intentions can lead…

Supporters are adamant that once valued attributes like diversity, creativity, and individuality must be set aside in order to accomplish what they feel is best for everyone. Some of the more hard core uniformers think that it is perfectly acceptable to legally force opposing parents into going along with their utopian vision. They opine that the parents being made to shop against their will should stop complaining, and that the objectors should conform for the good of the whole. They feel that simply being asked to buy a few inexpensive shirts and pants is a small price to pay for school peace.

Grassroots groups like Clifton Asserting Parental Rights (C.A.P.R.) are being formed by parents in reaction to government and corporate pressure being placed upon them to purchase ineffective and unwanted products. Even people who are not parents are being forced to participate in these programs as their tax dollars are being spent to outfit disadvantaged students with these unnecessary school supplies. Faced with this unacceptable situation, citizens are banding together to provide support for uniform resisters and information to the public.

American parents deserve the right to raise and parent their own children without government interference. Some parents enjoy shopping for their children and want to spend time teaching them the value of good behavior, taste and proper dress. Perhaps they would like their daughters to be able to wear feminine style clothes, normal skirts and dresses, or even long skirts instead of pants and ‘chastity skorts’ only as some school policies mandate. Unfortunately, those favoring mandatory uniform dress continue to spread the unsubstantiated propaganda of uniform manufacturers. Claims such as: uniforms and boring clothes will increase school spirit and safety; help students to focus by eliminating distractions; “enhance the school learning environment”; and even stop bullying.

Yet bullying is exactly what is being fostered by this movement. This is a sad state of affairs because we live in the United States, a country founded upon the principals of freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Two major problems with this trend need to be addressed. The first is the tendency of uniform advocates to think that it is acceptable to force their beliefs upon others because bad law exists that allows them to get away with it. The second is the fact that real research done by unbiased professionals like that of Dr. David L. Brunsma, has proven that uniforms and standard dress policies do nothing at all. In fact they even had a negative impact on reading scores. This flies in the face of the claims made by the uniform manufacturers and their followers.

One belief system should not be allowed to supersede another. The fact that not all parents happen to share the same beliefs regarding this issue needs to be respected. Many parents view this as a radical movement that goes against their own deeply held beliefs. Most don’t have any particular objection to uniforms or plain solid SMODiforms (Standard Mode Of Dress) as long as they are voluntary. Problems occur when people are required to give up their beliefs. Uniformers have the option of sending their children to private or charter schools that generally have uniform policies. If they send their children to public school, they are free to exercise their right to dress them in solid color clothing as they see fit. Unfortunately that’s not good enough. In order for their misguided goals to succeed, many feel that they need everyone to participate.

New Jersey law, state statute 18A:11-8, encourages school uniform policies. It is written in a way that does not protect the rights of parents. The law outlines a set of simple steps that currently allow New Jersey school boards to strip parents of their rights. It also states, “a school board may provide a method whereby parents may choose not to comply with an adopted school uniform policy.” Therefore they do not “have to” provide opt-outs as some other states require. This needs to change.

Even if an opt-out policy is offered, it can be repealed once a mandatory uniform dress policy gets put into place. If offered at all, it can be denied. Families have been experiencing this oppression throughout the state. This is why C.A.P.R. only supports a traditional well enforced dress code or a purely voluntary uniform standard dress policy.

Administrators should do their jobs and enforce existing dress codes before passing the buck to parents. People don’t need an extra financial burden placed upon them right now. However, school districts that adopt these policies are required to, “include a provision to assist economically disadvantaged students” in obtaining mandatory uniforms. This means that taxpayers are expected to pick up the bill. They will probably also be expected to foot the bill for required in home schooling and alternate programs for suspended students if they or their parents decide not to comply. Even children who have been expelled or jailed are required to receive an education. This all seems like a high price to pay. Especially since hard facts and research prove that contrary to popular belief, uniform standard dress codes just don’t work.

Our tax dollars would be better spent on proven programs that increase academic achievement and create desirable conditions that are attractive to new families. Please keep in mind that these types of uniforms are not the kind once considered a marker of elite status. They are an indicator of a troubled urban district that has given up. Home and property values become endangered when a district decides to hoist the khaki flag of surrender. It’s not only parents who need to consider the ramifications of allowing this kind of social reform movement to have its way. It affects the entire community.

Biased surveys galore: Have you received a uniform or dress code survey? Chances are that you know someone who has. The problem is that these surveys are really push polls, and have nothing to do with accuracy. They serve as advertisements and a way for school boards to justify their actions. Many of these surveys are inconsistently distributed and some even allow people to vote all they want. (If you happen to know about them.) They are often improperly announced and only available for a short time. Could it be that they are designed to minimize opposition and promote a uniform dress agenda? If a school district uses one to tell you that they want to do something particularly good for your child and then asks your opinion, isn’t that misleading? What a surprise that these surveys all seem to come back in favor of uniform dress.

Only a few legal steps need to be followed before a uniform dress policy can be implanted in your school. After a request for one is made, a school board “shall hold a public hearing prior to the adoption of the policy”. Like the surveys, many of these are often poorly announced. Sometimes only a few days notice is given. If you or anyone else happen to miss it, well then too bad, you are just out of luck. Once a public forum has been held school board members are free to vote one of these invasive policies into place provided that they give no “less than three months’ notice to the parents or guardians of the students” before it begins. After that, you will be expected to purchase whatever they decide from whomever they decide; otherwise your child will suffer the consequences.

Parents and taxpayers like those who have joined up with groups such as C.A.P.R. don’t believe that these kinds of actions are appropriate for our public school systems. The real enemy is corporate influence which is being legally allowed by to exploit the existing situation. Like the two weavers in the famous Hans Christian Andersen tale, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, this multi-billion dollar industry is quite influential. Uniform companies are present at every teacher’s convention. They will continue to profit while they can until people wake up and demand a change. These kinds of corporate inroads don’t belong in our public schools. Parents and children are being sold out by their school boards town by town across the state. It needs to stop.

Leaders and lawmakers should take note. New Jersey was the first state in the nation to outlaw paddling/corporal punishment in 1867. (Twenty other states still allow it.) Our state needs to take the lead again and outlaw these unfair practices. We need a law that will make these government mandated shopping sprees a thing of the past. Let us once again set the standard for other states to follow. We need our state legislators to make mandatory uniform policies illegal in our New Jersey public schools and change the law to encourage voluntary programs instead.

I would like to encourage everyone, no matter where you stand on this issue, to do your own research. Decide for yourself if New Jersey parents are being treated fairly.

Download and listen to a Standard MP3 file (“Podcast”, 23mb) (about 45 min.) from Internet radio show “Point Negative” interview with attorney Gary Klahr on the Mandatory School Uniform and Standardized Dress policies flooding our nation’s schools.

5 Comments

  1. POSTED BY kmed  |  May 15, 2012 @ 6:46 pm

    Let me start by saying that I have no vested interest in the debate regarding school uniforms in Clifton; I don’t have children in the school district there, and am not even a resident.

    That being said, and with all due respect for your opinions regarding the positive or negative impact of school uniforms, I would implore you to do a bit more investigation into this issue using peer-reviewed, methodologically sound research as your basis for judgement.

    This is clearly labelled as an Op-Ed, but the veracity of your statements simply can’t be confirmed, and the references that are listed on the C.A.P.R. website are either anecdotal editorials or publications put out by clearly partisan organizations.

    There is good, solid, scientific evidence out there regarding this issue, freely available for reading (see http://journals.sfu.ca/ijepl/index.php/ijepl/article/view/253/96 for just one example), some of which actually supports your position, but some of which doesn’t. The study referenced here shows a significant reduction in violent behaviors related to school uniforms in elementary and middle schools, but finds no similar benefits in high schools (and indeed some downsides to uniforms at this level).

    By stepping back, and attempting to strip off some of the emotionally charged layers to this debate, you might actually be able to clarify your position in a meaningful way and gain supporters through the use of a rational, evidence-based argument.

  2. POSTED BY Right of Center  |  May 16, 2012 @ 8:06 am

    Everyone is so closed-minded! It’s not going to kill anyone to wear uniforms. Try it out for a year or two and see how it goes. If it fails, then get rid of it.

  3. POSTED BY arch  |  May 16, 2012 @ 10:52 am

    CAPR parents are failing to realize that if their children wear uniforms they won’t have to fight over clothes in the AM. Uniforms save time – perhaps they can use the extra time to enjoy breakfast together

  4. POSTED BY anns  |  May 16, 2012 @ 11:48 am

    Kmed, thank you for your insight and the reference to yet another study indicating that uniforms are not always as beneficial as they are made out to be. Perhaps you missed the research materials available under CAPR’s ‘learn more’ section: http://capr.freehostia.com/learnmore.shtml#research. Contrary to your statement about the references cited on our website, I hardly think that studies such as: Brunsma and Rockquemore’s The Effects of Student Uniforms on Attendance, Behavior Problems, Substance Use, and Academic Achievement in the Journal of Educational Research (which is peer reviewed) http://faculty.unlv.edu/sloe/Courses/EPY%20702/Class%20Exercises/Lecture%201%20Materials/Articles/Brunsma%20et%20al.%20(1998).pdf and The Educational Testing Service of Princeton NJ’s Order in the Classroom-Violence, Discipline, and Student Achievement (from the same organization that creates and administers the PSAT, SAT, and GRE tests) http://www.ets.org/Media/Research/pdf/PICORDER.pdf
    to name just a couple of CAPR’s references, could be considered “publications put out by clearly partisan organizations” Education Week’s Teacher Magazine’ interview of Dr. Brunsma (author of two books on school uniforms, whose studies incorporate data from a National Educational Longitudinal Study and a decade of scholarly research) as well as the NAESP National Association of Elementary School Principal’s Principal Magazine article on his findings are far from “anecdotal”. Clearly our group’s statements and my own personal opinion are indeed supported by empirical evidence. Yes this is an emotionally charged issue, but the point of this editorial is that this is a result of people’s rights being trampled upon.

    RoC, how can you justify officials coercing thousands of parents to invest their hard earned money into an experiment with what is essentially a hidden form of taxation? Especially for products that have been proven to be ineffective. Why throw money away, especially given the present state of our economy? A well enforced dress code is free; it just needs to be properly enforced. I and others like me want our tax money invested in proven programs that increase academics, and are not interested in being forced into making personal donations towards an experimental cause that we don’t believe in.

  5. POSTED BY Right of Center  |  May 17, 2012 @ 1:01 pm

    Every curriculum, text book, technique and course syllabus is experimental anns.

    Two or three school uniforms (what? Black jeans and white shirts?) will save money on clothing because it lessens the “need” for fashion.

    I think it’s a great idea. I hope it comes to Montclair.

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