School board debates student uniforms

Mary Bailey
Community Editor

If the Forest Lake school district started requiring uniforms, would you pull your kids out and send them somewhere else? Or would you thank those in charge for finally coming to their senses?

At the Jan. 10 meeting Karen Morehead brought up the idea of starting a task force to look at school uniforms (which the district does not now require) and dress code (which the district already has).

Two of her fellow board members opposed the idea.

Erin Turner said she is not in favor of uniforms. Her main concern, however, is the amount of time it would take from the already-busy staff.

“It seems like a large undertaking when we’re really cramped now. With the facilities task force, everybody’s plate is full,” she said.

Rob Raphael disapproved of any attempt to mandate the use of school uniforms.

“I have the right to dress my kids however I want,” he said. “You’re trying to write a policy that takes rights away from me. If you get 100, even 1,000 people in favor of uniforms, I don’t care. That’s not the school’s function to tell me how to dress my kids.”

Raphael said a task force set up to look into school uniforms would be biased in favor of the idea.

He cited research that found little effect on outcomes and concluded “the issue will not be decided by studies: It’s an emotional issue. Your input will end up with uniforms because you want uniforms.”

When Morehead argued that her mind is not closed on the issue, Raphael said, “You believe in your heart 100 percent that uniforms are a good idea.”

Morehead said Raphael was wrong; the task force might instead come up with a dress code. “We already have a dress code,” Raphael said.

“Not one that works,” she replied.

Morehead said parents and teachers have suggested the district look into the topic, and she considered doing so in 2004/2005.

“I received 30 e-mails,” she said, “and only two were not positive. I felt like I let them down” by not pursuing the issue.

Morehead said schools that began requiring uniforms saw a 1 percent improvement in achievement that could not be attributed to any other change.

“Maybe kids aren’t distracted,” she said. “We can have our personal feelings about it, but I hope as a board we can have an open mind. It’s important because it has improved districts.”

She also said uniforms help families by preventing morning arguments about what to wear.

School uniforms are not expensive because each student needs only a few items, which can be handed down when outgrown, she added.

Raphael disagreed. Parents would need at least three or four sets of clothes for each student, he said, depending on how often the family does laundry.

Turner said families would not be able to afford uniforms, and added that uniform dress takes away children’s individuality and ability to express themselves.

When Morehead countered, “They can be individual the rest of their day,” Turner said, “At 2:15 they put on their other wardrobe that parents have to purchase.”

Enforcement is also a problem, Turner added.

Other school board members were more supportive.

Gail Theisen suggested the district should see if there’s interest in the idea. There are teachers who would welcome uniforms, she said. Dealing with dress code issues such as skirt length and yoga pants is a tiring task that teachers “have to deal with, day in and day out.”

Theisen said she agrees with Turner’s concern about district resources, but said “I do think it needs to be asked and answered.”

Dan Kieger said at the secondary level there is interest in looking at the dress code. And in response to Raphael’s concern that there may be no proof of academic achievement, Kieger pointed out that there might be more positives to be gained than just academic.

Kathy Bystrom suggested that Morehead bring the board a more formal proposal of the scope of the task force, including what she wants to accomplish and who would be involved.

“What is the impetus for the task force?” she asked. “Is it to improve achievement? Is it disciplinary issues? Bullying?”

She also addressed the issues of bias and cost.

“Don’t enter anything with bias attached,” she said. “A lot of people do research. You have to see where that research is coming from. Really look at solid evidence.”

Bystrom suggested the task force look at the research on attendance, achievement and behavior. A survey of the community would be necessary.

“I don’t see the board being able to make a decision unless the majority of parents support this,” she said.

Bystrom said she is very concerned about how school district staff are spread so thin, but on the other hand, schools spend “a ton of time and resources dealing with dress issues,” time that should be spent educating kids.

Turner agreed that designating the task force goals makes sense to move the issue forward.

“Many people have very strong feelings about this,” she said. “I’m not for it. This is a hard topic.”

Morehead said she will bring her written proposal to the board in February.

At the Jan. 10 meeting the board also heard a report from the school funding work group and an update on  revised standards for social studies.