RICHMOND, FEB. 11 -- The Virginia Senate passed a bill today that would permit local school boards to enact regulations under which public school students could voluntarily wear uniforms to class.
The legislation was backed primarily by lawmakers from urban and suburban areas, who said that students are under too much peer pressure to wear the latest in expensive fashions and designer clothes. The pressure has resulted in increased truancy, fights, bloated clothes budgets for parents, even crime, proponents of the bill said.
Opponents argued the legislation was at best unnecessary. At worst, they said, it could infringe upon a person's freedom of expression and lead to an over-regimented school environment that could dampen student creativity.
The Senate approved the bill by a 20 to 16 vote. The House had earlier passed an identical version, 78 to 21, so the bill now goes to Gov. L. Douglas Wilder for his signature. A spokeswoman for Wilder said yesterday that he has not yet reviewed the legislation.
Like schools elsewhere that have adopted dress codes and uniforms, Virginia schools could approve voluntary dress regulations under the proposal, but would not enforce them if students did not wish to comply. Several dozen D.C. elementary schools and a junior high school, as well as some magnet public schools in Prince George's County and some public schools in Baltimore, have opted for voluntary uniforms for students.
D.C. school board President R. David Hall has proposed requiring all city students to wear uniforms.
In Northern Virginia, there has been little interest in the issue.
"Most people associate uniforms with parochial schools and are automatically against them," said Sandra Levy, an Alexandria parent who favors uniforms. "The feeling is, 'I don't want my child regimented.' "
One of the first Virginia schools to express interest in uniforms is Westover Elementary in Richmond, where students could be wearing them this fall.
The Virginia bill says that when choosing uniforms, school boards "shall consider ways to promote parental and community involvement, relevant state and federal constitutional concerns such as freedom of religion and freedom of speech as well as the ability of pupils to purchase such clothing."
Del. Kenneth R. Melvin (D-Portsmouth), sponsor of the bill, called it a "parents' relief bill . . . because the cost of clothing as a result of peer pressure to have the latest in fashions places a tremendous burden on family budgets."
Beyond that, he said, when families cannot afford $100 sneakers and $500 jackets, students sometimes steal them from classmates or sell illegal drugs to raise money on their own.
Supporters said uniforms also could help school officials spot strangers on campus.
Melvin said he decided to pursue the legislation after a nephew refused to go to school one morning because he did not have a popular leather jacket.
"I was floored," the lawmaker said. "I consulted with other kids and found out it was true, and I talked to a juvenile judge, and he told me that one of the major reasons for truancy is that kids don't feel they have the clothes to dress appropriately for class, and by that I mean the latest fashions." Staff writer Stephanie Griffith contributed to this report.