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'Plain Jane, and Jim,' attire required in most Clayton schools

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

There will be fewer Clayton County students wearing ill-fitting name-brand clothes during the 2008-09 school year.

Brand names and logos from the likes of Abercrombie and Fitch and Fubu, and sports teams like the Atlanta Falcons, will not be emblazoned across the chests of many young pupils as they walk down the hallways on August 7, the first day of school.

Fifty-two of Clayton County's 60 schools, and one alternative school, will have mandatory school uniforms next year.

"This issue is really a microcosm of the whole safety versus civil liberties debate," said David L. Hudson, Jr., a scholar from the First Amendment Center in Nashville, Tenn., who has studied the uniform issue since 1995.

Courts have mainly upheld school uniform policies, but the lack of a legal precedent from the U.S. Supreme Court leaves uncertainty in the legal landscape about those policies, Hudson said in a telephone interview.

He applauded Clayton County's policy of requiring support from 80 percent of parents before implementing a uniform policy at a school, though, because parents are traditionally against an elected body dictating what kind of values a child should be raised with.

Parents overwhelmingly said "yes" to the uniforms in a district-wide survey conducted earlier in the spring. The school system requires the support of 80 percent of parents from a school before a uniform can be adopted.

"The survey was done in response to parents expressing an interest in school uniforms at PTA meetings, and other meetings held in the district," said district spokesman Charles White. "The principals moved forward with planning a survey, and it was eventually decided to do a district-wide survey rather than a school-by-school survey, because of the high level of interest."

All elementary, primary and charter schools, and half of the district's 14 middle schools, will have mandatory uniforms for all grade levels during the next school year.

Students at nine Clayton County schools, including Rex Mill and Sequoyah middle schools wore uniforms during the 2007-08 school year. They also wore uniforms at Lewis Academy of Excellence, and E.W. Oliver Elementary ; Church Street Elementary; Smith Elementary; Jackson Elementary; River's Edge Elementary, and Kilpatrick Elementary schools.

Jonesboro, Kendrick, Morrow, and Pointe South, will join Rex Mill and Sequoyah middle schools as they adopt uniforms for all grade levels. Sixth-graders at Adamson, Babb, Forest Park, Lovejoy, M.D. Roberts, Mundy's Mill, North Clayton, and Riverdale will wear a uniform too. So too will students in the middle school grades at the Flint River School, an alternative school for special education students.

The uniforms will consist of a white polo, or dress shirt for all students, and khaki, or black pants or shorts for boys, and skirts or jumpers for girls. Several stores, Wal-Mart; Target; Kmart; J.C. Penney, and Land's End have sections on their web sites devoted solely to school uniforms. The prices range from less than $20 for a complete ensemble, to around $25 for a single item.

District spokesman Charles White said some funding will come from the general fund to help schools purchase spare uniforms, which will be used for students who need to borrow an outfit for a day. District officials have not yet determined the amount of money to be set aside.

School uniforms have been at the center of debates on freedom of speech rights for several years. In 1996, the U.S. Department of Education distributed a "Manual on School Uniforms" to school systems to guide local officials as they adopt uniform policies.

The manual said uniforms prevented gang members from wearing gang symbols at school; reduced peer pressure for students; increased concentration on school work, and decreased violence and theft over designer sneakers. However, critics of school uniforms, claim the mandatory outfits are a restriction of a student's ability to exercise his, or her, free speech rights.

"It's a good idea to have parental support before you implement a uniform policy," Hudson said. "It reduces the likelihood of a lawsuit -- at least a class action lawsuit -- being filed."