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The issue arose last August when Cooper Barton, then a kindergartner at Wilson Elementary, wore a University of Michigan T-shirt to school. The 5-year-old Wolverine fan was told to turn his shirt inside out since it violated the district’s dress code policy.

Wearing clothing that depicts athletic teams, except for Oklahoma colleges and universities, is against the district’s dress code.

The incident evolved into a constitutional matter involving freedom of expression, said Oklahoma City Superintendent Karl Springer.

“We want to make sure the policy is fair to all,” he said. “We want to get all of our questions answered.”

If the school board decides to mandate uniforms, it won’t be anything new for the district. Sixty of the 77 schools already require uniforms.

“We’ve left it up to individual school sites until now,” Springer said. “The dress code needed to be tweaked to honor the rights of all students and what they wear to school.”

Proponents of uniforms claim they help prevent gangs from forming on campus, encourage discipline and help students resist peer pressure to purchase trendy clothes. Advocates also suggest uniforms help identify school intruders, diminish economic and social barriers between students, improve attendance and increase a sense of belonging and school pride.

Clothing distraction
Kay Lewis, whose daughter is a senior at Star Spencer High School, believes uniforms should be mandated at all schools.

Her stance, however, wasn’t popular at home.

“My daughter was against it,” she said.

Karl Springer

This is the first school year Star Spencer has required student uniforms.

“They didn’t like it at first, but they’ve adapted to it,” Lewis said. “They felt like they ought to be able to wear what they wanted. Some of the clothes were gang clothes, and some of the stuff girls were wearing was not appropriate. They don’t need to be wearing clothes that are so distracting.”

This isn’t Lewis’ first go-round with school uniforms. In fact, she initiated the move for school uniforms as a parent at Telstar Elementary School.

“We sent out a survey, and the majority of parents who responded wanted uniforms,” she said.

Meanwhile, critics of the proposal argue that a mandate would create a financial burden for families and violate a student’s right to free expression. Opponents also suggest requiring uniforms would be nothing more than a Band-Aid on the issue of gangs and school violence.

If the board decides to mandate school uniforms, the economic issue should be minimized by giving families advance notice, said Springer.

“We want to give six to seven months’ warning to our families,” he said. “I also think we would be able to provide uniforms to families that cannot afford it.”

But Lewis said she believes uniforms are less costly than normal street clothes.

“It’s cheaper to buy uniforms than to keep up with the latest fashions,” she said. “If [students] don’t outgrow it, they’ll have clothes for the next school year.”

Legal issues
School board member Phil Horning said the arguments for uniforms are numerous.

“But the real question for the board is, do we allow schools to make that decision for themselves, or do we mandate it? I think it eliminates petty economic competition,” he said

Horning said he doesn’t believe family finances should factor into the board’s decision.

“I’m not persuaded by that very much,” he said. “Children must be clothed, anyway. I can’t think of any less expensive form of clothing.”

If finances are not a major issue, previous legal battles suggest a student’s right to freedom of expression could be a looming obstacle.

In June 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s decision affirming a Vermont student’s right to wear a T-shirt depicting then-President George W. Bush surrounded by drug and alcohol images. The school had suspended the student, not for the political statement but for violating a dress code that prohibits drug and alcohol images. The court, however, disagreed and found that, because the imagery referred to Bush’s alleged past use of cocaine and alcohol, it was protected as free political speech.

That same year, the Supreme Court set aside the decision of a lower court upholding a San Diego high school’s suspension of a student for wearing an anti-gay T-shirt. School officials argued the shirt was hateful and inflammatory. The high court’s action essentially upheld the student’s right to free speech.

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