April 17, 1996
Many politicians and educators have embraced school uniforms as a way to reduce violence in public schools. Elizabeth Brackett of WTTW-Chicago reports on one high school's experiment.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Every morning at Farragut High School in Chicago, kids stream through metal detectors under the watchful eyes of uniformed police officers--purses, book bags, satchels all carefully searched. Orders are barked out. Only those wearing white tops and black pants or skirts are allowed in. That's because last year, Farragut became the first public high school in Chicago to adopt uniforms.
CINDY INGUEZ, Farragut Student: At first many disagreed last year, but everybody got used to it, and I guess it did make a change, so now everybody thinks that it was a good idea that we got them.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Uniforms and the tough security procedures were approved after both students and staff at Farragut admitted their school was out of control.
ADAM ABARCA, Farragut Student: When I came to Farragut, it would not be unusual to see thirty, forty police officers here every day, classes having to be closed down, students dismissed early, fire alarms being pulled. I mean, it wasn't a safe school environment. It was a riot zone.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: That's the same scene principal Edward Guerra saw when he was hired by the local school council in 1994. He found a school run by gangs with daily mob action fights in the halls.
EDWARD GUERRA: If you picture 30 Hispanics against 30 African-Americans in the hallways, I remember my first--from that experience, it was like a giant tidal wave, overwhelming. I had to step aside because it was going to run me over. And I couldn't believe it. I thought that only happened in the movies. A lot of people says, Eddie, why are you taking this job, what did you do, and when I saw it the first time, you know, it was overwhelming, but I knew somebody had to do it.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: What Guerra did was persuade the local school council to budget $100,000 a year for security. Twenty security personnel were hired, monitors seated in every hallway, security cameras mounted on every floor. But Guerra thinks the most effective change was the one that cost the least, uniforms.
EDWARD GUERRA: A lot of schools have a dress code, which means they can wear a lot of different things. We're the only high school--it's been two years already--that has a uniform policy of white top and black bottoms.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Now, Guerra keeps a sharp watch for any deviation from the required white and black. When uniforms were first required, Guerra bought 5,000 white T-shirts and handed them out for free. Now if students come to school out of uniform, they get a chance to buy a T-shirt or risk being sent home.
STUDENT: Do you have an extra large, please?
SPOKESMAN: I have extra large, $5.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Students, faculties, and parents agree that the new policies have turned the school around. Gang fights and graffiti are gone from the hallways, and so is fear. Senior Adam Abarca says much has changed since his freshman year.
ADAM ABARCA: Now, the additional security cameras, the uniforms that we can see, and now this attention that we're getting, this school is 150 percent better. The students can learn without being afraid. It's gotten, you know, best attention, and I'm proud to be here now.
EDWARD GUERRA: They have a sense of security. It creates an environment conducive to education, and they feel like they're learning. Our attendance has increased from 72 percent to low 80's, 82 percent, I believe. Our IGAT scores have increased. Our drop-out rate has declined.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The new chief executive officer of the public schools, Paul Vallas, liked what he saw at Farragut so much he asked the local school councils at all Chicago public schools to vote on the question of uniforms.
PAUL VALLAS, CEO, Chicago Public Schools: The board feels there's a policy that uniforms should be something that all the schools should embrace. We can't force the schools to do it, so the next best thing is to at least force them to debate the issue.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: In the weeks following Vallas's request, the local school council started discussing uniform the issue. At DuSable High School, located in an area of high gang activity, feelings ran high against uniforms.
GEORGE ROSS, DuSable Security: We're in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the nation dealing with DuSable High School to give that school another reason not to come to school here is not what we need.
CHARLES MINGO, DuSable Principal: The feeling is that if the students are all dressed the same way, then it would cut down the gang colors and things of this nature.
EMIL HABERLIN, DuSable Teacher: Why do we have to work around gangs while gangs can't work around us?
NUBIA MANNING, DuSable Student: I don't feel the need for an economic reason, a gang reason, a fashion reason, or any other reason, because we don't need uniforms.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Most DuSable students agreed. The athletes in the school weight room saw no need for uniforms.
ZACHARY NORVELL, DuSable Student: Because ain't nobody gonna want to come if they got to dress up, and ain't nobody gonna do it, so ain't no sense of you doin' it. Ain't nobody gonna dress up to come to school. That's a no-no. They're gonna come the way the come. If they send 'em back home, I guess there ain't gonna be nobody in the school. We shouldn't put uniforms in public schools.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Principal Charles Mingo says some students feel uniforms carry a negative message. They say with one out of three young black men in jail, anything that smacks of prison is not welcome, that includes uniforms.
CHARLES MINGO: The theory is in high school, you're just practicing for your prison uniform, so it's, you know, it's almost like you have people saying, well, you'll be in the uniform soon enough.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Mingo has cut down on the violence at the school by banning the wearing of gang colors and paraphernalia. But he has drawn the line at using metal detectors.
CHARLES MINGO: Do I think the school will be any safer wearing uniforms? Probably not. I'm concerned about those kids who don't have the uniforms coming to school. That is a real concern.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Many of those wondering about school uniforms look to the Catholic schools for answers. Uniforms have been worn at Fenwick, a suburban Catholic high school, since the school was founded in 1929. Principal James Quaid says at Fenwick, as in most Catholic schools, uniforms represent tradition and discipline.
JIM QUAID, Fenwick Principal: Wearing uniforms helps to create an atmosphere, and the atmosphere is one that--a business-like atmosphere where you're here to do a job, you're here to learn as much as you can, and do the best possible job you can do in school.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But many say the real reason Catholic schools and other private schools have fewer discipline problems and get better results is their ability to choose their students. Fenwick admitted about half the students who applied last year and expelled 25 students for academic and disciplinary reasons. Public schools can't pick and choose who will be accepted, but Paul Vallas thinks it's time to be clear about who will be allowed to stay.
PAUL VALLAS: We have to get violent kids out of schools. You know, you have to establish a zero tolerance policy, because when you're in that school, you're there to learn. And, and there has to be a consequence for actions. And one consequence is in-school suspension and expulsion and transfer to an alternative schools.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Alternative schools for disruptive students and drop-outs were set up for the first time this year. Uniforms are not offered; a second chance is.
DION TWILLEY, Student: It's my last chance. I don't have nowhere else to go. And I need a education to move on somewhere. If I don't have no education, I can't go nowhere.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Guerra says having the alternative schools as a place to send his problem students gives everyone at Farragut a better chance.
EDWARD GUERRA: It means here and at any other school that trouble makers, kids that don't want to reform [conform] to educational requirements can be transferred to an area and an environment that will be more restricted and that will alleviate discipline problems at all schools. In this case, here, it would have helped me out a lot.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The changes made in Chicago schools seem to be paying off. City-wide, there has been a 46 percent drop in the number of violent incidents reported in the last four years, and at Farragut, where uniforms have been added to the mix, the last two years have brought almost a 100 percent drop in violence incidents.