D.C. public school students would be required to forgo FUBU, Mecca and other hip clothing for uniforms under a proposal introduced yesterday by two D.C. Council members who said it would reduce peer pressure and violence among city youths.
The plan offered by council members Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) and Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7)--which will take effect in the fall of 2001 if it passes the council after public hearings and debate--received a lukewarm reception from several other council members. It was criticized by some public school officials and parents, who said they were wary of a mandatory uniform requirement and of the council's intruding into school policy.
The Schwartz-Chavous plan would have the District join a growing number of school systems that have turned to uniforms, which many educators believe make schools safer and calmer by eliminating the pressure on students to keep up with the latest fashions.
While mandatory uniform policies remain rare outside parochial schools, many public school students--about 25 percent of those across the nation, by some estimates--attend schools with policies on uniforms.
Among those are the District's schools: Almost half the city's 146 public schools now give students the option of wearing uniforms on campus under a policy adopted several years ago by the D.C. Board of Education.
A D.C. schools spokesman said yesterday that 77 elementary schools, three educational centers, six middle schools and five junior highs have voluntary uniform policies.
Chavous, chairman of the council's education committee, said schools that have adopted uniforms "really love it." He said it was appropriate for the council to weigh in on the issue, adding that he would schedule a hearing on the bill next month.
Several D.C. education officials and activists said they were unhappy with the proposal, arguing that school officials--and not the D.C. Council--should set policy for the city's schoolchildren.
Wilma R. Harvey (Ward 1), president of the D.C. Board of Education, said she believes the uniform policy in place now works well.
"I really think it's a school issue, and that the elected school officials in the city, along with the superintendent, should deal with the issues around children," she said.
Council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), a member of the council's education committee, said she would "probably not" favor the measure. She said a voluntary uniform policy for individual schools "is a good option."
Schwartz, meanwhile, called the bill "a bold step towards order and equity in our public school system." She cited statistics from Long Beach, Calif., which adopted a voluntary school uniform policy in 1994 and saw suspensions cut by one-third and fights among students drop by half.
Schwartz said that she has "considered the opposition that some in our community may have against the adoption of a mandatory school uniform policy."
"It may seem to some as a denial of freedom of expression, [but] I think the benefits of a mandatory school uniform policy greatly outweigh this concern," said Schwartz, whose three children attended D.C. public schools.
The bill also calls for the school system to offer "grants and discount programs to assist indigent parents in obtaining school uniforms."
Schwartz, who launched her political career by winning a seat on the D.C. Board of Education in 1974, said her bill would not impose on the board's authority, which has been drastically curtailed by the presidentially appointed D.C. financial control board. The control board, which was established by Congress during the city's financial crisis four years ago and has oversight of all decisions by D.C. government, has installed a board of trustees to oversee the school system.
"We pass legislation all the time that has to do with the schools," Schwartz said of the D.C. Council. "Unfortunately, the [elected] school board is not in charge; the board of trustees is in charge, and they're not elected officials."
Elected school board members, along with the public, may comment on the bill at public hearings, Schwartz said.
Delabian Rice-Thurston, head of the education advocacy group Parents United, said she was disappointed by the council.
"It's just not something I think the council should get into," she said. "When it was a school system decision, the system left it up to the individual schools, and that's the way it should be. . . . If parents don't see a need for it, then it won't be enforced."
But the idea intrigued Sheila Carr, vice president of the PTA at Eastern High School in Northeast Washington. "Personally, I see it as saving money," she said. "If we get the parents to step to the plate, we could do it. That would eliminate those $180 tennis shoes."
But Carr said she was concerned that students would balk at wearing uniforms and that lawyers would rush to court to try to block any mandatory uniform policy.
"The children will revolt because they are just not accustomed to being told what to wear," she said. "I don't know how the council can mandate it because I'm sure the [American Civil Liberties Union] is just waiting" to file suit.
The ACLU said that the D.C. Council could pass a law mandating uniforms that would not violate the D.C. Human Rights Code, but that such a law could violate the Constitution.
"That is something we would be looking at very carefully," said ACLU spokeswoman Mary Jane DeFrank. "It's one thing if it's voluntary, but mandatory, we would have a problem with that."
Staff writer Stephen C. Fehr contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Clothes like this FUBU sweater would yield to uniforms under a bill proposed in the council.