The school year is just two weeks old in the District, and already, school uniforms are a problem.
No, these aren’t the usual school uniform debates, where some teachers love them because they keep the focus on learning, or parents say they kill individuality, or kids say they simply suck.
The problem comes when your wash day is Tuesday and the one school uniform you can afford is filthy on Thursday.
That’s what the school uniform debate looks like when you’re homeless.
For the kids who wake up in a shelter or a car every morning, whose parents can’t buy a week’s supply of uniforms and don’t have a Maytag for a speed wash or even a sink for a quick scrub, uniforms are just another thing to get in trouble for. A barrier. Another rule. Another way kids facing improbable odds are being punished for something they have little control over.
Let’s start with the case of polka-dot socks.
It was her second day of sixth grade. Middle school is heinous enough. But it quickly got worse for one 11-year-old girl starting at a new school in Southwest Washington — who understandably did not want to be identified — when she was sent to detention last week because her socks were polka-dot.
They were not white, black or burgundy socks, as her D.C. public school dress code requires. Her family couldn’t afford new socks in those colors.
With her detention came the warning that she would be suspended if she doesn’t reach dress code compliance within two weeks.
Welcome to the intersection of absurd and tragic.
As more public schools move toward adopting uniforms — one of every five public schools in the nation require them — there are more ways that the nation’s 1.3 million homeless kids get smacked down for their circumstances.
Three-quarters of the traditional public schools in the District require uniforms, a common trend in urban schools.
At the family homeless shelter in the abandoned D.C. General Hospital, adults who work with kids said they’ve been told about an unprecedented wave of punishments over uniform violations these past two weeks.
Detentions, letters of warning, phone calls to parents, threats of suspensions.
Janice Moye’s 4-year-old got in trouble the first week of school when she sent him to pre-K in something other than the khaki pants and burgundy shirt he’s supposed to wear.
“Wash day is on Tuesday. That’s when our floor gets to wash clothes,” said Moye, who has been living in the shelter for two months. “I can only afford one uniform. That’s all he’s got. So I sent him to school in regular clothes. They were clean.”
So now, she washes the one uniform in the sink every night (4-year-olds live dirty). She hangs it up over her bed, hoping it’s dry by morning. But there are no irons in the shelter, and she worries he’ll get in trouble for the wrinkles.
“How many children are needlessly suffering this week by the obstacles we put in place?” said Jamila Larson, executive director and co-founder of the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project, which provides services to many of the city’s approximately 2,700 homeless kids and has been hearing the horror stories of uniform violations from kids and parents all week.
“Children are being punished for something they have no control over: what clothes their parents are able to buy for them before the start of the school year,” Larson said. “Our kids face teasing at school for having the wrong clothing, the wrong size and dirty clothes their parents cannot reasonably keep clean. What a way to start the school year.”
And once kids get in trouble, they are faced with the dilemma of explaining.
Do they want to tell the teacher — maybe in front of the whole class — that they couldn’t wash the uniform because the laundry room at the homeless shelter was closed last week? That their parents couldn’t afford a new shirt with an embroidered emblem this year?
Probably not. So it further shames, punishes and degrades them, making their uphill climb even harder.
The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act is a federal law that helps these kids with that climb. It provides uniforms — usually just two — to kids who can’t afford them. (One D.C. public charter school requires embroidered uniforms and ties that can run $500 a year.)
The Playtime Project also helps, handing out donated uniforms to children. It takes donations year-round.
And schools are constantly trying to get better at understanding the needs of their students who are fighting terrible odds through no choice of their own.
It’s a frustrating twist on something that was meant to be such a great equalizer.
Remember all those stories of kids being shot for their North Face jackets?
That was part of what made President Bill Clinton such a vocal advocate for school uniforms in 1996.
Uniforms would cut down the bullying, the caste-system sorting and name-calling that came from not having the right style or brand.
I longed for school uniforms when I was growing up. Anything to keep the absence of the upside-down triangle on my butt cheek from signaling my ban from the Guess Jeans Gang.
And as a parent, I love the school uniform, which my older son is wearing.
The morning dressing routine has been stress-free.
Except for one recent morning. He realized his limited supply of uniform shorts was out, and there was a frantic, Whirlpool speed-dry vigil that saved his bacon.
We are lucky.