The introduction of student uniforms in New Jersey school districts has historically led to controversy, such as the fierce 2007 battle in Bayonne between school officials and parents, and in Clifton, where a similar conflict began last year.
But that’s not the case in Hoboken, said Superintendent of Schools Mark Toback last week. He claimed that the district’s decision to mandate uniforms for all seventh through twelfth graders at the start of the new school year in September will improve the academic and social climate in Hoboken High School.
“The goal here is to make the focus on academics more pronounced than the focus on clothing,” said Toback last week. “Uniforms will not only take pressure off students who feel that they have to fit in by wearing certain clothes, but also save administrators and faculty from having to waste time dealing with dress code violations.”
The rules apply to male and female students alike.
According to the policy, which is posted on the school board’s website, students in grades 7 and 8 must wear black or gray polo shirts, and high school students must wear red or white polo shirts. White or light blue button-up shirts with a collar are also an option.
For the lower body, students must choose between khaki and black Dockers trousers, khaki shorts, or knee length skirts of either color for girls.
Crew neck, V-neck, cardigan sweaters, and fleeces are permitted, but have to match the grade colors. Hoodies, hats, sweatbands, bandannas, scarves, and sunglasses are forbidden on school grounds, unless they are kept in a student’s locker.
“The goal here is to make the focus on academics more pronounced than the focus on clothing.” – Superintendent Mark Toback
If a student arrives at school not in uniform, they will be given an opportunity to change, and if they cannot, they will be given a pass to show to teachers throughout the day. Any disciplinary action would take place outside of normal school hours, said Toback.
No parent concern?
The plan to require student uniforms in the district was decided at a May meeting of the Board of Education after it was introduced in April. Toback said implementing a uniform policy had been a goal of the school board for a long time, and that it was an idea which originally stemmed from the high school faculty.
He said he consulted with colleagues around New Jersey, and heard nothing but positive reactions from superintendents in districts with uniform policies.
“This is something that nearly all of the high schools in Hudson County have done,” he said. “And from what I’ve heard from my colleagues, they’re very happy with those decisions.”
The support from other school boards is unsurprising. A rise in uniform policies has been a trend for some time.
But more surprising is the lack of parent concern. In 2007, a judge ruled against a group of Bayonne parents who contended that the district’s uniform policy violated the students’ rights to free speech. Currently, parents in Clifton are involved in an effort to bar their school board from requiring uniforms.
Toback said not one Hoboken parent has contacted him with concerns other than where the acceptable clothing could be purchased.
Hoboken High School’s principal, Robin Piccapietra, said a survey conducted by the district showed only 50 percent of parents supported uniforms. She said that she thought the lack of public outcry was mainly due to the district’s decision to make the uniform items available at almost any clothing store, rather than making it a mail order process through a school uniform company.
“We haven’t had any complaints or protests,” said Piccapietra. “I think the main concerns are cost and being able to get the clothes.”
Piccapietra said that the school will set up a website where parents can view the various color combinations the policy allows for and check a list of suggested retail locations where the items can be purchased.
A state law mandates that any school district requiring uniforms must hold a public hearing and give parents fair warning.
Toback said he believed the April and May board meetings served as that forum.
“There wasn’t a whole lot in the way of discussion,” he said. “But our meetings are public. We checked everything with our lawyers to make sure that we were going about this correctly.”
The same law mandates that the school provide a uniform to any student with economic difficulties, and allow any student to opt out on religious or medical grounds should they so choose. Toback said that both stipulations would be observed in Hoboken.
“No student is going to be denied the right to a uniform because they can’t afford one, and every student and parent has the right to a hearing to discuss why they believe they should be allowed to opt out of wearing a uniform,” he said.
Piccapietra also said she thought uniforms would aid increased security in the high school. She said the school shootings in Newtown, Conn. last December provided a catalyst for implementing the policy.
“There was a big discussion about security following Newtown, and even though I’d been thinking about uniforms for a long time before that, I realized that uniforms could play a role in keeping students safer,” she said.
With all students required to wear uniforms, Toback said, it will be much easier to identify who does and does not belong in the school hallways.
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org