D.C. Mayor Marion Barry says he is considering proposing a standardized dress code for the city's public schools that would put District school children in color-coordinated shirts, pants, sweaters, blouses and skirts.
The mayor said his idea, which he has not yet proposed to the school board, is for each of the city's schools to have its own colors, and for all the pupils attending that school to wear their school's uniform. The purpose, Barry said, would be to foster school spirit, to save parents money on clothes and to deter youngsters who don't belong in the school buildings from loitering.
Initial reactions to Barry's suggestion ranged from disbelief to sarcastic criticism to cautious approval by some parents, school board members and children. The idea seemed to raise a litany of questions and concerns, from how the public would respond to the regimentation of school children to how much the project would cost parents and the cash-pinched city school system.
"You're joking," said school board member Alaire B. Rieffel (Ward 2), bursting into laughter when told of the mayor's suggestion. Told of Barry's reasoning, Rieffel said, "I stand by my first reaction, which is, 'You've got to be kidding.'
"I think the parents would go absolutely berserk," said Rieffel, who in the past has sometimes supported Barry. "It goes against the entire philosophy of the board, which is not to have graduation gowns for junior high schools because we don't think parents should have to come up with the money."
School Board Vice President Barbara Lett-Simmons said, "I was wondering if he was also going to brand 'D.C.' on the forehead of every child from the time they enter kindergarten. He [Barry] doesn't have enough to do."
Surprisingly, however, some District school children seemed initially receptive to the idea of showing up for class in color-coordinated fashion.
"It's a good idea," said Tanya Herrion, a 14-year-old student at Hine Junior High School in Southeast Washington. "I get tired of people coming to school in tacky clothes, but a lot of them can't help it."
Sherri Denton, a 15-year-old Jefferson High student, said, "People don't dress to come to school -- it's more like a fashion show. Uniforms might help if you couldn't afford what everyone else was wearing. I think it's a good idea."
Barry first made the suggestion for a standardized dress code at a luncheon with newspaper columnists on Friday, and he expanded on his idea Saturday. "We've got to urge the Board of Education to adopt a policy of dress," Barry said. "I don't like to say 'uniforms' because that sounds sort of militaristic.
"It would first of all give some pride to the school," Barry said. "In the elementary and junior high schools, it would help spot outsiders very quickly. It would save money for a lot of parents. Kids spend a lot of money buying all sorts of clothes so they can go to school looking sharp."
Barry has no official power to implement such a proposal, which would have to be voted on by the city's elected school board. But as mayor and the city's most visible elected official, Barry does have the power of persuasion, and he also has political allies on the board.
Barry emphasized that his proposal is still just in the planning phase. "It's at 'A' and I have to go to 'Z' with it," he said. Part of the idea he said he is still considering is to set up "sewing centers around town for people who couldn't afford to buy them [uniforms]."
Despite Barry's arguments, Carol Schwartz of Ward 3 is another school board member who doesn't think much of the idea. "What's the penalty if a kid shows up without a uniform? How about the dealth penalty? That seems appropriate," she jokingly suggested.
"If the kids wore masks, that would be cheaper," Schwartz said. "They could come [to school] as gerbils and lions and tigers. I wish he [Barry] would spend his time doing something more constructive. But, oh, well, it's his life."
Board member Eugene Kinlow asked. "Is he going to pay for them [uniforms]? I'd be happy to talk about it when he figures out how we're going to pay for them, along with some other things."
Board member John Warren (Ward 6) began chuckling when told of the mayor's idea. "I can respect the good intention, but that's something we have to look at," he said.
"It would be a substantive policy change," board member Nathaniel Bush said, "so the board should get public input into a drastic decision like that. I think it is a very real problem, people think it is a very real problem, people trying to clothe their kids to go to school. It could defer that cost."
Another board member, Linda Cropp, said, "It's an idea that might be worth looking into. It's never been tried before in public schools, but it's worked very well in private schools." One problem, Cropp said, is that the District's public school population is highly mobile, with children often changing schools several times in one year. "If there are going to be different colors for each school, that could be a problem," she said.
Delores McCarter, a member of the Managers Board of the D.C. Parent Teacher Association (PTA), said, "That is a thought. Uniforms would remove the peer pressure. They [children] get too style-conscious and that causes parents to spend more money." Nevertheless, she felt that students would oppose the idea at first.
But students other than Herrion and Denton seemed to like the idea. Devon Wilson, a 13-year-old Hine Junior High student, said, "People dislike kids who can't dress. A whole lot of kids come to school and fight about what they're wearing. Uniforms might solve some of it, if they are all exactly alike."
Another student, William Bailey of Woodson Junior High, said that at his school, "People try to outdress each other, and if you can't afford it, you feel bad and it takes your mind off learning."
Jenise Patterson, director of Bring-a-Parent community counseling service for District children, said she suggested the idea of uniforms to Barry last year. "This whole designer clothes business is crazy," she said. "Kids are very competitive about what they wear, and since some black kids have never had anything, they become very, very materialistic.
"I know kids who have stopped going to school because they felt their clothing didn't fit in," Patterson said. "There must be hundreds of bright kids in the District who've dropped out of school for just that reason."
Barry said his idea was prompted in part by the need to keep track of outsiders in the city's public schools. Since the opening of school Sept. 4, there have been several incidents of violence in or near public schools, including one fatal shooting and two stabbings. School authorities have blamed many of those incidents on outsiders, which has prompted a new round of discussions between school officials and the City Council about the need to lock some school doors without violating fire safety regulations.
Several of those interviewed questioned whether color-coded school uniforms would solve the problem of vagrancy and loitering on school property.Board member Bush said, "I suspect that our problem with outsiders is more a question of accessibility to our buildings."