Cobb County sixth-grader Sydney Testman was yanked out of her accelerated science class the first week of school. Not for bullying students. Or disrupting class. Or interrupting the teacher.
It was for wearing a short-sleeved pink shirt, which didn’t fit the uniform required at Tapp Middle School, where most students are Hispanic or black.
Sydney and other students who broke the uniform rules were taken to another classroom, and the assistant principal warned her mother that continued violations would bring in-school suspension, with Sydney taken out of her class.
“It’s extremely unfair,” said Valerie Testman, Sydney’s mother. “If she were in another school in this district … her education would have been uninterrupted and she wouldn’t risk for the first time in her educational career getting an incident on her discipline record.”
Hispanic and black students in Georgia and throughout the U.S. are more often required to wear school uniforms than white students. Across the metro Atlanta region, about half of black students and one of every four Hispanic students wear uniforms, while about one of every 20 white students do, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found. That means nonwhite students are more likely to face disciplinary action that can include missing classroom lessons.
Racial disparities in school discipline have drawn federal attention, and uniform rule violations have become one more reason students can be taken out of classrooms for minor, non-violent offenses. The U.S. Department of Education and the Department of Justice warned schools last year of plans to review disparities in school discipline nationally.
“You’ve basically got a different set of rules than you do for white kids,” said Mike Tafelski of the Georgia Legal Services Program, a nonprofit law firm serving low-income clients.
In Cobb County, where about half of students are black or Hispanic, every school that requires uniforms is majority black and Hispanic.
In Georgia and nationally, black students are suspended and expelled for all offenses at higher rates than other students. In Georgia, 37 percent of students are black, but they account for 67 percent of suspensions and 64 percent of expulsions, according to federal data.
Uniform violations don’t often bring days-long suspensions or expulsions. But students can be pulled out of class for being out of uniform. In Atlanta and Cobb County public schools, about one in five dress code violations, which can include uniform infractions, were punished with in-school suspensions.
Still, some parents say uniform policies work well for their children. Valencia Walker’s 9-year old grandson attends school in Clayton County, a majority-black district that has a system-wide uniform requirement. She believes uniforms help build school pride and keep students whose families can’t afford name-brand clothes from feeling left out.
“If you’re singing in a church choir, you wear a robe. At a family reunion, you all wear T-shirts,” she said.
Public schools in poor, often mostly minority neighborhoods began adopting uniforms in the 1980s, to identify people who didn’t belong in the school and cut down fights and gang disputes. Other schools adopted them hoping to improve discipline and academic performance. Research has been largely inconclusive, however: Some studies find uniforms can help improve academic performance and reduce discipline problems; others find little effect.
“The (uniform) policy itself is not a racist policy. But it is being implemented in a racist fashion,” said David L. Brunsma, professor of sociology at Virginia Tech, who’s written extensively about school uniforms. “Uniforms within the public school system have actually ended up being a kind of marker of disadvantage. Meanwhile out in the suburbs or the predominantly white schools … the student bodies are kind of free to express themselves at a time … when expressing their identity is a super important part of becoming who they’re going to become.”
In metro Atlanta, schools often require solid-color, collared shirts in one of a handful of colors and pants or a skirt in tan, navy or another neutral color. Some schools provide donated uniforms to students whose families can’t afford them and allow for religious exemptions.
At some schools, uniforms are “strongly encouraged,” rather than mandatory. And in some districts, including Clayton and DeKalb, punishment for being out of uniform isn’t supposed to include taking kids out of the classroom — though DeKalb district administrators admit that some students may have been. In Fulton, where about 60 percent of the district’s majority-minority schools require or encourage uniforms, violations don’t often result in taking students out of class, according to records provided by the school system.
At DeKalb County’s Towers High School, where most students are black, former principal Ralph Simpson instituted a uniform requirement after polling parents and students — and a fashion show where students modeled variations on the required khakis, polos and button-downs.
Uniforms “gave us a laser-like focus on what we were there for and that was teaching and learning,” he said.
In Clayton County, some parents have complained about the district-wide uniform policy, but most teachers and parents have embraced it, said Jacquelyn Hubbert, deputy superintendent.
“Parents like the fact that they know what is expected as far as dress is concerned,” Hubbert said. “When it’s time for them to go school shopping, they know what to wear, what to buy. From year to year … they know that they can use those uniforms again.”
“Some of the research told us that one consideration is peer pressure, when it comes to dressing. That some students might be able to wear all the name-brand clothes and shoes and some are not. And this wearing of uniforms cuts that out as a possible reason for peer pressure or bullying.”
Hubbert said Clayton has not done research to determine if uniforms have helped academic performance. She said the district just last year stopped using in-school suspensions for uniform infractions.
“Children come to school to learn and be taught,” Hubbert said. “And they can’t be taught if you’re taking them away from their teacher. Unless it’s a really dire offense, we made the choice to leave children in classrooms so they can be educated.”
Denise Cole’s son attends Garrett Middle School in South Cobb, where students wear uniforms. She said the requirement is a financial burden because she has to purchase two sets of clothes for him — one for school, one for outside school.
“We couldn’t really afford uniforms, but we were forced to do it,” Cole said. “Last year I struggled with it. This year, I’m struggling more … It’s discriminating against low-income neighborhoods. It doesn’t make sense. Put your efforts in another direction” to improve student achievement, she added. “I don’t see how it helps their education.”
Sydney’s mother, Testman, asked the Cobb school board this summer to let students choose whether they want to wear uniforms. Board chairman Randy Scamihorn said the board leaves it up to individual schools to decide. “If the school and the community decides if uniforms are in the best interest of the children in that school district, then if you have an opt-out you don’t really have a policy, you don’t really have a dress code,” Scamihorn said.
“It’s not an ethnic, racial issue in my mind at all. Nationally, wherever there’s a uniform code, it’s generally for safety and also for help in having a better classroom environment because people aren’t looking at somebody’s $300 pair of jeans when others can only wear a $10 pair of jeans. People aren’t being threatened to give up their Air Jordan shoes or their Atlanta Falcons jacket.”
Cobb school board member David Morgan, who represents South Cobb, where most of the majority-minority schools are in the district, said uniforms put children in a better position to learn: “If a principal makes a determination that at their particular school, uniforms minimize distraction in terms of fashion, then I support them.”
The racially disproportionate application of uniform requirements unfairly penalizes minority students, and may violate the federal Civil Rights Act, said Daniel Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the University of California at Los Angeles.
“What they’re teaching kids is the most important thing is to be obedient, and the non-obedient ones, who are often the brightest … free-thinking, critical-thinking, they’re essentially beating them down unless they’re obedient,” said Losen.
“The goal of school should be to encourage critical thinking. Obedience is not the most important value. Certainly obeying rules and having a community that’s vibrant where people feel safe is important, but enforcing every little violation of the dress code can run counter to that.”
Testman and her daughter Sydney agree: “Why do I have to get pulled out of class because I’m not wearing the colors they want me to have on?” said Sydney, 11. “We’re still kids, and we like expressing ourselves through clothing.”