Dress to Suppress

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Katherine Jones/Idaho Statesman

There is an interesting article on the front page of the Idaho Statesman this morning. A Junior at Borah High School, Cory Adkins, has organized a student group to protest a plan by Principal Greg Frederick to require school uniforms at the school starting in 2008. The group, “Dress to Suppress”, staged an anit-uniform rally Monday near the campus war monument. According to the Statesman article:

Frederick is seeking Borah parents’ opinions about uniforms in a survey mailed out last month. He said uniforms would help uphold modesty standards, increase school unity and pride, and eliminate label competition.

“I personally am very in favor of it; I think it would be great,” said Frederick, who has been at Borah for 18 years. But he said he would listen to what the community has to say.

“When I look at what a concept of a uniform might be, I don’t feel it’s negative, but I have to yield to parents and students who say, ‘You’re stifling my creativity and individuality,”’ he said. “Greg Frederick is not going to be the sole determiner.”

I found the article interesting reading because, years ago, I taught at Borah and I remember a similar student protest about a dress code that included a ban against males wearing hats inside the building. I used the event as an opportunity to talk about how mass protest had been a strategy to bring about social change throughout American history. We talked about labor protests, civil disobedience during the civil rights era and student protests during the Viet Nam war.

I was reminiscing about how engaged and interested my students were as they saw parallels between their own experiences and America’s past, when I noticed the Statesman article taking a strange turn. Midway through the article the Statesman reporter, Anne Wallace Allen, appealed to an expert to give the article academic credibility. Who might be able to give this story some context- an educator, an historian, a political scientist? No, the authority appealed to here was Gundars Kaupins, a management professor at BSU:

“It’s a very legitimate point of view,” he said of the students who resist uniforms because they feel the garb would rob them of their individuality.

“They’re talking about freedom of expression,” Kaupins said. “But companies have the right to determine dress code.”

Kaupins, who said he has helped produce more than 300 employee handbooks for companies in the Treasure Valley, has had clients whose dress codes covered minutiae of their workers’ appearances – including the length men could wear their beards. Within limits, it’s common for employers to tell their workers how to dress.

“That is part of management’s rights, period.” Kaupins said. “It would be part of a school’s rights, too.”

Notice the “lesson” current Borah High students are learning about the true purpose of public education. It is not to prepare you to become a productive member of a participatory democracy. Rather, it is to prepare you to become an obedient and conforming worker.

Of course,this decision to require uniforms at Borah didn’t occur to Principal Frederick one night in a vision. It is obviously part of a plan that began two years ago when uniforms were mandated at South Junior High, a feeder school to Borah. By the time uniforms are required at Borah, one half of the student body will already be used to the restrictions.

South Junior High started requiring students to wear khakis or black pants and maroon shirts with collars.Since then, test scores have risen and discipline problems have declined, said South Principal Kathleen McCurdy, whose students go on to Borah.”Kids are more focused on their schoolwork,” McCurdy said. “When kids are dressed a certain way, they act a certain way.”

McCurdy makes claims for uniforms that are simply outrageous. Does she really have any evidence that test scores have risen and discipline problems have declined because of uniforms? Of course not. At best she confuses correlation with causation, a mistake no educator who claims to make decisions based upon data should be making. The South Junior High cafeteria eliminated “Cheese Yum Yums” from their menu last year. I contend that is the cause of the rise in test scores, not uniforms. I challenge McCurdy to prove me wrong.

At Borah, Frederick said he has met with students on the issue and he plans to again, but he’s not sending them a survey.”I don’t need the students’ vote, because I know what the vote will be,” he said.”They’re mainly going to be opposed.”

South Junior High Principal Kathleen McCurdy didn’t ask students for their opinions either before she made uniforms mandatory at South last fall, she said.”I also wouldn’t ask them if they like broccoli,” McCurdy said.

McCurdy says, “When kids are dressed a certain way, they act a certain way.” I think the truth is, “When you treat kids a certain way, they act a certain way.” When you have no interest in their opinions, when you make decisions that have an impact on their lives without allowing them to have a say in those decisions, you have, for the most part, cowed, resentful, obedient followers. As an authoritarian principal, it certainly makes your life easier.

On the other hand, oppression sometimes results in students like Cory Adkins and Crystal Gittings, who should give us all hope for the future.

“When someone in authority tries to abuse their power to suppress individuality or self-expression to a degree that strong, that’s a warning flag the authority is growing too big and trying to take too much control,” said junior Crystal Gittings, 17. “Looking at history, that’s how rights violations happen. It’s a slippery slope.”

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