Two schools, two policies: How Tri-State educators are grappling with uniforms and dress codes

CINCINNATI - Parents and guardians are checking off the items on their children’s school supply lists in preparation for a new school year. For many, those lists include not only pencils, paper and calculators, but clothing. Whether a student attends a school with uniforms or without, school officials want to make sure students are prepared with appropriate attire.

According to data gathered by the U.S. Department of Education and other agencies Cincinnati ranks among top cities in the country where students at public schools wear uniforms:

New Orleans 95%
Cleveland 85%
Chicago 80%
Boston 65%
Miami 60%
Cincinnati 50%

The research shows about 23 percent of all public school students in the U.S. wear uniforms to school.

Students at Pleasant Hill Academy, (preschool through sixth-grade) in the Cincinnati Public School District, have been wearing uniforms at least five or six years, said Principal Shauna McDowell.

“I think the whole initiative behind the uniform was to not have any distractions,” she said. 

Uniforms v. dress codes

Enforcing a uniform policy helps decrease dress code problems. It also prevents feelings of competition and envy that arise when some students sport attire that others cannot afford. 

Like McDowell, officials in the Hamilton City School District hope to minimize distractions with their dress code policy. Students in the district do not wear uniforms, but they do have rules.

“There is a standard of dress any business or school should have, and they need to abide by that. Students are there to learn, so we try to minimize distractions,” said Joni Copas, director of communications for Hamilton City School District.

The district ran a pilot program for uniforms in some elementary schools about 18 years ago, she added. The pilot was fairly successful, but in the end school officials decided not to go through with a district-wide transition and did away with the program.

What is appropriate attire?

While some schools are very specific when it comes to uniforms, McDowell tries to be flexible. Uniforms at Pleasant Hill can be any combination of white or blue collared shirts with navy or khaki pants, skirts, capri pants, jumpers or knee-length shorts.

Students can wear white undershirts and solid blue or white hoodies, sweatshirts or sweaters.

“I think those options help parents, too,” McDowell said. She added that because some colors may be difficult to keep clean or to find during certain seasons, allowing different combinations makes it easier to make sure children have appropriate attire available. 

In Hamilton City Schools, students must follow the standards of the district dress code.

  1. Students must wear shirts that cover them from shoulders to waist. Spaghetti straps, halter tops and midriff shirts are not permitted.
  2. Shorts, skirts and dresses must extend at least to the length of a student’s fingers when the student’s arms are resting at his or her sides.
  3. Students cannot wear hats, hoods, bandanas, sunglasses, gloves or sweatbands in school.
  4. They also are not permitted to wear clothes conveying explicit or obscene messages or promoting alcohol, tobacco or drug use.

What if students don’t comply?

When students come to school at Pleasant Hill wearing jeans, or otherwise out of uniform, they are not subjected to punitive action, McDowell said.

“We’re not putting them in detention. We don’t put them in ISS (in-school suspension),” she said.

Unless a student is repeatedly showing up at school out of uniform, violations are usually excused. If the issue is recurring, either the school’s social worker or McDowell will pull the student aside and call his or her parents.

In some cases, parents may have difficulty supplying uniforms for their children. The district has a uniform van with a supply of clothing provided through donations. In addition to clothing meeting the uniform guidelines, students also receive underwear, socks and T-shirts from the van. Pleasant Hill students also have occasional dress-down Fridays as well as a spirit week, which is usually after winter break.

“I know how kids can be and how anyone can be; sometimes you don’t want to wear the same thing all the time. We have dress-down so kids have the opportunity to wear something other than their uniforms,” McDowell said.

At Hamilton Freshman school, students who do not comply with dress code policies are removed from the classroom until the fix the problem.

“The rule of thumb is that if a student’s dress is distracting to the educational environment, that’s when we take action to correct it,” said Hamilton Freshman School Principal Jeff Miller.

Students are asked if they have something else they can put on, and if they do not, they are asked to call home to get something else to wear.

Students occasionally wear shirts that convey inappropriate messages or that do not provide adequate coverage, but dress code violations are relatively few and far between.

“We don’t have a lot because I think we’re pretty consistent in the district about what our expectations are,” Miller said.

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