Malibu High School uniform proposal elicits varied responses

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Proponents tout equality among students and increased focus on studies as benefits, but some worry about inhibiting students’ self-expression and adding more costs to the cash-strapped school district.

By Knowles Adkisson / The Malibu Times

Following a suggestion from parents that Malibu High School consider uniforms for its students, a preliminary discussion on the issue took place last Thursday with the MHS School Site Council. The School Site Council is a group of teachers, parents and students in charge of decision-making and policy issues that meets monthly at the MHS Library.

The proposal has elicited various responses from parents and students via The Malibu Times web site in comments on a story about the subject published last week. A poll on the web site, www.malibutimes.com, indicates a preference for uniforms, with 52 percent voting Yes for instituting the use of uniforms at the school, 45 percent No and 4 percent undecided. The poll will remain online for two more weeks.

One parent wrote in the comments section: “I would prefer that everyone’s time be spent on more important academic issues such as improving the science department, trying to find ways to keep teachers that are being laid off and raising school spirit. I find it quite puzzling that Malibu, an independent and creative community, wants to stifle our children’s individuality.”

Another commented: “My guess is that the source of this proposal is middle school parents, who are no doubt mortified that their young ones are exposed to scantily clad High School girls who wear exposed lingerie and shorts that leave nothing to the imagination. MHS administrators have always had difficulty enforcing the dress code.”

At the School Site Council meeting last week, some parents said the use of uniforms would be a way to curb provocative dressing, level the playing field for students who cannot afford expensive clothes (while saving all parents money spent toward clothes) and create a sense of solidarity among the students. These parents also reason that if students were not preoccupied with their appearance they could focus more on their studies and learn more. Other parents felt uniforms would inhibit students from expressing their individuality, and also worried about the potential cost of uniforms at a time when the school district is facing financial troubles. The school district just laid off three teachers, including one at Malibu High, in preparation for expected cuts in state funding next year.

One parent said Malibu High had a bad reputation for the provocative way some girls dress at school. That reputation, along with the daily hassle of arguing with their children over what they are wearing, had led some of her friends to enroll their children in private schools that require uniforms, the parent said. Most of the parents at the meeting agreed that provocative dressing among girls at the school was a problem.

A teacher said she often had to send female students to the principal’s office because their clothes were too revealing. The teacher also said under dressed girls affected male students’ concentration in class.

Several parents in favor of uniforms spoke about the stress of peer pressure among girls and what they wore.

“It takes an enormous amount of energy to be a girl,” one said.

The parent said that since MHS includes grades 6-12, high school girls set an example in terms of dress that middle school girls see and feel implicit pressure to follow.

But others thought uniforms would stifle students’ creativity.

Bill Robinson, whose child is a senior at MHS, said, “It [the idea of uniforms] just doesn’t feel like Malibu High School. There’s a sense, from my perspective, of freedom here … it’s a completely different environment than other schools that in my mind just doesn’t lend itself at all to uniforms.”

Another area of concern brought up at the meeting was the potential cost of uniforms. Since the state constitution requires a free public education be provided to all students, it is believed that uniforms would have to be provided free of charge if students were required to wear them. The state settled a lawsuit in December with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) after the ACLU sued the state for illegally charging students fees for extracurricular activities and supplies. Parents suggested doing more research into how that settlement would affect whether or not the school district needed to provide the uniforms at no cost to students.

Another parent said she did not feel strongly either way about uniforms, but wanted the discussion about uniforms to be “as democratic and participatory as we can.” She recommended that surveys or focus groups be established among students, parents and teachers to get their thoughts on the issue.

Any decision to require uniforms at MHS would have to be approved by the school district board of education. Furthermore, Section 35183 of the California Education Code states, “A dress code policy that requires pupils to wear a school wide uniform shall not be implemented with less than six months’ notice to parents and the availability of resources to assist economically disadvantaged pupils.”

If the six-month noticing requirement were followed, it would likely push back the possibility of uniforms at MHS to the 2012-13 school year at the earliest.

MHS Principal Mark Kelly said, “However we proceed, we need to ensure a reasonable process, time, [determine] who needs to be consulted, and also [consider the issue] in the context of the recent ACLU settlement,” Kelly said.