Image is Nothing, Obey Your Dress Code

Superintendent Dr. David Estrop remembers a time when public schools across the nation upheld strict uniform policies and separated students by gender for certain courses.

Norman Mailer, in his 1957 essay "The White Negro," describes the hip current of self-liberation that set the young free from the shackles of uniform industrial society into the image of cool rebellion. He writes: "- One is Hip or one is Square, one is a rebel or one conforms."

As the counter-cultural movements of the mid-twentieth century jolts the presumed rock-solid American institution - K12 public education -the Lakewood Public School system abolishes its uniform rule and the segregation of the sexes, making way for school where self-expression and pluralism are the rule. Rebellious types found ways to express cultural differences outside the identity-restricting template of the modern industrial education system.

We now find ourselves in a period of cultural reaction and retrenchment. The roles and values of the self-expressive counterculture are being reversed. Class is being restructured within the United States, with large chunks of the middle in the industrial Midwest withering away. Today, the mandate from power on high takes place within the context of a fledgling, quasi-postmodern global economy where the fat is being
trimmed, outsourced and off-shored. At the local level, effective preparation of students for intelligent competition in a global economy falls to the back burner as administrators and teachers struggle to comply with the "No Child Left Behind Act" and battle competition for federal funds from charter schools. All these policy decisions are leaving traditional public school districts with dwindling resources as they struggle to maintain order.

In his book Education as Enforcement: The Militarization and Corporatization of Schools, Kenneth J. Saltzman makes a distinctly leftist argument that the move toward privatized education and restriction of student expression in American public schools are the result of decades of corporate encroachment on media, public policy and democracy in general. He conceptualizes the relationship between the perceived behavior modifications resulting from restriction of expression within the student body as evidence of a, "militarization of civil society that in turn needs to be understood as part of the broader social, cultural, and economic movements for state-backed corporate globalization that seek to erode public democratic power and expand and enforce corporate power locally, nationally, and globally."

The media took this opportunity to blame Marylyn Manson and the "Goth" subculture for brainwashing youth and advancing violent rebellion against conformity. From the vantage points of the neo-liberal and neo-conservative ideologies that rule policy-making today, school uniforms are about raising security. In The Uniform Movement and What It Tells Us about American Education: A Symbolic Crusade, David Brunsma writes, "The number one reason given for the implementation of uniform policy in public schools is that they will work to somehow decrease the incidence of school violence and misbehavior at the school building." Though the author makes a lengthy argument on the limited effect school uniforms have on education, he does cite some correlation between dress and psychological well-being attributable to school uniforms.

Dr. Estrop echoes this concern for safety saying, "first and foremost- we will always make sure, to the best of our ability that students are safe and secure in that building." He highlights that what has come out of the Student Conduct and School Climate initiative goes far beyond restricting student dress.

Certainly Lakewood's efforts to return to a more conservative dress policy can be read in this global cultural and economic context. At the same time, it is possible to view the effort as an experiment in behavior modification, one postulating something subtler than restricting violent behavior. For such an experiment to be successful, a thorough assessment of the rough road ahead must be global in scope and uniquely local in
application.

The recent tightening of the LHS dress code must be taken as a signal. Economically and racially, the student body is diversifying. This is indicative of regional dynamics linked to sprawl and to efforts to gentrify Cleveland neighborhoods. As the Cleveland Public School system continues to struggle, individuals will be increasingly likely to migrate to
inner-ring suburbs; simultaneously gentrification in Cleveland neighborhoods will displace lower income families.

At the same time, Lakewood is seeing an increase in immigration from 2nd and 3rd world nations experiencing war and ethnic conflict. There are high costs - emotional and financial - associated with educational strategies that lift people out of instinctual and social conditioning born of war and poverty. The challenge for Lakewood is huge.

The School Climate and Student Conduct committee was initiated in response to specific concerns by staff, students and community members about the appearance of unwelcome climate and conduct within the LHS student body. The committee facilitated a consensus building process whereby community members; LHS students, faculty and staff could discuss the relevant issues and reach an agreement on the proper course of action.

While the mediation process framed important issues, several underlying
assumptions were not adequately addressed within the forum. First, It appears that although the current dress code was not being enforced, the fault lies with students and parents. Accountability on the part of staff was not addressed. Two LHS teachers, both wishing to remain anonymous, confess that most teachers want the dress restriction but not the responsibility. With resources dwindling, and time-banks bogged down by compliance to the No Child Left Behind Act, teachers can hardly be blamed for not
wanting to assume the role of dress code police. This disconnect tells us that teachers and pupils are not on the same page where expectations are concerned.

Secondly, the committee concluded that because the current code is not being enforced by teachers and parents, a policy must be adopted that is less flexible in terms of
interpretation. The assumption does not support a tightening of the rules most teachers are uninterested in enforcing in the first place.

Students have mixed reactions about the dress restriction. At a recent School Board
meeting junior Sam O'Leary criticized the board saying, "You mentioned that four-
fifths of the households in Lakewood don't have children in the schools. I'm not politically naïve, I know what it takes to fund a school in Ohio and know that it's not easy under the current guidelines. But I think that the board would be sorely mistaken to, in Mr. Favre's words attempt to "polish the student body" as opposed to a sincere attempt to
raise the quality of education in the schools." O'Leary suggests that the committee may have been convened solely in preparation for the next levy.

Coming from a student with O'Leary's smarts, such pointed comments serve to frame the extremely complex challenges facing Lakewood City Schools in coming decades. As the cost of education rises, compliance with federal mandates soaks up faculty time. As levels of poverty and social dysfunction increase, schools are increasingly put under the thumb of federal and state policies set to destroy the public good.

The key question is how, while complying with guidelines and regulations, do we
actually mount a sincere effort to transform the quality of education in Lakewood?

Such a challenge calls for much more than the appearance of change. However, reframing the dress code can be done in tandem with innovative approaches to student/teacher relationships, with volunteer programs of mentoring, with internships and job placements. Rather than simply asking the community to help decide how it should address issues alone, the school board, faculty and staff might involve citizens in
implementing a program of progressive, volunteer based augmentation of the public education process, asking for permission to step out side the box and experiment in the face of increasingly chaotic social conditions.

Chaotic times call for experimentation and readjustment. With this approach, the dress code might even become a uniform with one distinct caveat - the dress code as a 21st century counter-cultural statement. It should be a statement that we're not going to let
popular culture prepare our children for ignorance, depression and war. It must announce to Columbus and the nation that, in this community, we are taking a stand against the forces that are set to destroy our public institutions and erode our quality of life. Working harder and smarter will no longer suffice - what Lakewood needs is innovation. We need a paradigm shift and the time is now.
Read More on Slife of Life
Volume 1, Issue 3, Posted 10.00 AM / 27th September 2005.