Mid-Columbia school districts seek unity on uniforms

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldSeptember 23, 2012 

Prosser High School senior Gabe Aldrich said he wouldn't be concerned about wearing a school uniform in the future.

But that doesn't mean Aldrich, 19, wants to be told what he can wear to class each day.

"That's part of the experience of high school," he said. "It's kind of killing individuality."

Brandon Reyes, an eighth-grader at the small Paterson School in the Paterson School District south of Prosser, said he felt the same way when his school instituted uniforms four years ago. But he's warmed to them since then.

"You really waste a lot of time (in the morning) if you decide what to wear," the 13-year-old said.

The district serves about 100 students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Some eventually will attend Prosser High.

Prosser School District officials still are a long way from a decision. It is taking measured steps to determine whether students will be required to wear a uniform, partially to makes sure students, parents and teachers all have their voices heard on the issue.

However, at least one other district in the Yakima Valley also is considering uniforms. Other districts in the Mid-Columbia and elsewhere that implemented uniforms have reported improved student productivity and safety, fewer disciplinary problems and other benefits.

The case for uniforms

Jennifer Murphey, who has a 9-year-old daughter, is one of the proponents of school uniforms in Prosser. She said her support comes from observations working in the office at Housel Middle School in Prosser for the past four years.

"I just realized how much time went into clothing enforcement," she said.

Murphey said enforcing a typical dress code is easier said than done.

Student clothing fads change quickly, and teachers and administrators struggle to keep up with what is appropriate. Not all staff enforce the policy in exactly the same way, which leads to arguments with students over fairness.

"It's not fair to be the police instead of just being there to help educate them," Murphey said.

Prosser has a dress code policy similar to other school districts in and around the Tri-Cities. Students can't wear gang-related items, such as bandanas and hairnets, nor can they wear anything that promotes alcohol or drug use, or depicts offensive images.

Sexually provocative clothing, such as tank tops with particularly thin straps or blouses with sheer cuts in the front, also is prohibited.

Prosser Superintendent Ray Tolcacher said the district is considering a uniform policy not to battle with gangs, but to put students on the same level socially, potentially reducing bullying and other disruptive behavior.

Why districts like them

Paterson School District Superintendent Peggy Douglas said her district set up its uniform policy after staff started seeing boys wearing baggy clothing and designs on student notebooks similar to graffiti tagging. Students also had begun noticing some older students wearing gang-related clothing.

"When they graduated, their younger brothers and sisters started doing it," said seventh-grader McKell Munn, 13.

The school's uniform allows students to wear any of five colored polos -- light pink, light blue, light gray, white or forest green -- with jeans, slacks, capris or shorts.

Families buy the shirts from the district for $7.50 apiece. The district also imposed other restrictions, such as jeans not having too much embellishment or any rips, and students aren't allowed to wear flip-flops or hooded sweatshirts in school.

Douglas said student disciplinary incidents declined 85 percent after the first year of the uniforms, with less student bullying and students acting out.

"It's one more tool in our toolbox," she said. "It levels the playing field."

Students have come to see the silver lining to not having to spend time thinking about their outfit in the morning.

"You can sleep in until 7:20 or 7:30," said seventh-grader Kara Munn, McKell's 12-year-old cousin.

The Mabton School District has a uniform policy for its middle and high school students. On the west side of the Cascades, the Boren School, a science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, school in West Seattle, has a uniform policy. Boren school documents indicate a school uniform makes it easier to identify intruders among students, reduces distractions and teaches students to get to know their classmates better.

"STEM is a place where kids should know they are doing something very important -- this is to be their uniform for learning," school documents said.

Uniform hurdles

Pasco School District spokeswoman Leslee Caul said a public school district can face a lot of hurdles if it wants to implement a uniform policy.

Such policies likely would be on a school-to-school basis to appeal to as many families as possible. Even then, the district would have to accommodate families that didn't want to participate in a uniform policy by moving their students to other schools.

TV news station KIMA in Yakima reported pushback from parents in Mabton about the policy, saying they weren't consulted or received enough notice about the uniforms.

The Grandview School District slowed efforts to implement a uniform policy at Grandview Middle School. Principal Paul Voorhees said he had parent support, but the board wanted a more deliberative process after some parents complained uniforms were just meant to mask problems at the school, such as gang activity.

"We don't have a gang issue," Voorhees said. "There's a lot of pressure on our kids to dress and be like others. This is a positive thing."

And a uniform policy supported by parents and teachers doesn't mean students won't challenge it. Douglas said a group of eighth-grade boys last year decided to see how far they could go with having saggy pants. They were called to the office, and Douglas used zip ties to secure their pants high on their waists.

"When you do that to the two most popular boys in the eighth grade, the rest know you're serious," she said.

Prosser surveying families

Those reasons are why Prosser officials are moving cautiously, Tolcacher said. The district is surveying families for their perspective on a future uniform through phone calls and an online survey on its website that asks about an acceptable price range for clothes if a policy is implemented.

If surveys show support, an exploratory committee made up of students, teachers and parents would develop a uniform policy proposal for the Prosser School Board. Tolcacher said he expects the process to take up to a year.

"You have to do it in baby steps," he said.

It will possibly take equally long to win students over to the idea. Murphey said her daughter became upset when she heard about the uniforms, and Tolcacher said his twin son and daughter, who are high school seniors, came home incredulous after they heard about the idea.

And Wade McManus, a 17-year-old junior who takes high school classes online, has a specific idea of what he'd be willing to wear as a uniform.

"Only if the uniform is Volcom," he said of the popular clothing line.

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