The Day – Notably Norwich: Let the kids decide what to wear, within reason

The Norwich school system recently surveyed parents, teachers and students on whether to continue its policy requiring school uniforms for children in grades five through eight.

While parents and teachers were about evenly divided, the surveyed students in those grades were overwhelmingly against having to wear uniforms. No surprise there.

Before we delve more deeply into the results, we should commend the school system for having enough respect for all three surveyed groups. Some school systems either don’t care what parents and students think or don’t want to know. We have seen all what can result when parents don’t think they’re being heard when it comes to school policy or curriculum that affects their children.

That’s not the case in Norwich, where nearly 3,000 people — including nearly 1,000 students — responded to the survey. The community deserves praise, too, for being as engaged with what’s going on in the schools as it is.

This win-win is self-perpetuating, so hopefully, school administrators, teachers, parents and — yes! — Students will all continue to respect and communicate with each other on issues of such importance.

OK, back to the survey.

It comes as no surprise that the vast majority (85.7 percent) of surveyed students don’t want to wear uniforms — blue or khaki pants, shorts, skirts or jumpers, no jeans, and blue or white collared, button-down shirts or polo shirt.

I can relate. When I was a freshman in high school, my parents enrolled me at what was then St. Bernard Boys High School in Uncasville, where we were required to wear dress pants, collared, button-down shirts, ties and the gray school blazer (seniors there got to wear snazzy red school blazers). After years of wearing pretty much what I wanted in elementary and junior high school, the thought of having to wear a tie and jacket to school every day made me want to lock myself in my room for the rest of my life.

Whenever my freedom-loving friends at Norwich Free Academy saw me at the bus stop in a tie and jacket, their razzing was merciless. I felt like a dork, which was one of the main reasons I was enrolled at NFA for my next three years.

“School uniforms make me feel more school spirit & pride and that I belong,” was one of the survey statements. A mere 17.5 percent of the surveyed students agreed with that statement. You could almost see the eye rolls among the remaining 82.5 dissenting percent whose answer might as well have been “Yeah, right.”

Parents and teachers were about evenly divided. Some parents said having the policy causes hardship for their families, while some teachers said the policy is difficult to enforce.

what to do

How about something radical — like leaving it up to the kids?

No, this is not to suggest that, because the students don’t want to wear uniforms to school every day they shouldn’t have to. It does mean, however, that the kids should have an opportunity to earn what they want by accepting some incentive-based opportunity.

Let them wear what they want — within reason. No political, obscene or insulting messages on their clothing, nothing that promotes violence or drug/alcohol use, nothing too revealing. However, if they want to wear plaid Bermuda shorts and a UConn t-shirt, let them; attire promoting their favorite athletic team, rap artist or rock band would be OK, too. So would jeans, as long as they’re intact and not full of real or manufactured holes, rips or tears.

Here’s the catch, though: Any student who breaks the rules loses his or her privilege and goes back to the uniform requirement. And if abuse of the new privilege becomes too widespread, well, that blows it for everyone, and the uniform policy goes back into effect.

The same requirement could be in place for general behavior. Part of a student’s in-school or out-of-school suspension would be temporary reinstatement of the uniform policy for the offending student — say, two to four weeks. A second suspension results in permanent loss of that student’s free-dress privilege.

Even pre-teens deserve some responsibility and a chance to earn some privilege. There would also be a lesson in there too about the consequences of bad behavior — consequences that could potentially impact some or all of the others, not just the offender.

There were also divergent views among the surveyed adults and youngsters about whether uniforms “prevent bullying, competition and peer pressure among students.” About two thirds of the adults — teachers and parents — answered yes, while just over two thirds of the students disagreed.

Yes, kids can be mean to each other, but here’s a news flash: peer pressure and competition will always be part of life. Now would be a good time to start dealing with it and getting past it. After all, they compete in Little League and youth football and basketball at an early age, and they’ll be in some form of professional, social and personal competition for the rest of their lives. Let’s stop pampering them and start preparing them for life in the real world. If competitive behavior or peer pressure starts crossing the line into bullying, then it falls into the disciplinary category, and the offending suspects can either knock it off or risk losing their privileges. Who’d be on the short end of the proverbial stick then?

I respect teachers and school administrators; they have tough jobs that often go far beyond reading, writing and ‘rithmetic. I can also empathize with parents, remembering that it was easier to get the kids ready for school in the morning when all you had to do was make sure their uniforms were clean, they’d finished their homework, finished their breakfast and packed their lunch .

And while it was a long, long time ago, I remember what it was like to be a kid. I bullied and got bullied, I was hardly best-dressed in any of my classes, and — to my parents’ chagrin, that was by choice, which I relished.

Later on, other kids had nicer cars and went on exotic vacations and had cooler clothes, but that was hardly traumatizing.

The full Board of Education will discuss the policy again next month. They should give it a try and see what happens. The kids might surprise all of us and make it work. And if they don’t, they’ll have only themselves to blame.

Bill Stanley, a former vice president at L+M Hospital, grew up in Norwich.

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