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President,Committee of Youth Officers for the Province of Ontario

"Mike Knox is a genuinely caring street gang expert. His knowledge of street gangs, their workings and the high risk youth that enter or associate with gangs is a benefit to any front line law enforcement officer. Mike’s expertise and positive approach empowers front line officers and middle managers to deal effectively with gangs and high risk young offenders. He champions proactive partnerships between police and other youth serving agencies and does so with a sincere interest in improving law enforcement and quality of life in communities experiencing gang problems."

The Case for Strictly Enforced Dress Codes in Schools: Part One

By Mike Knox

The true goal of any public school should be to train students to operate within our social structure in such a way as to be productive to society.  The true purpose of public primary and secondary education is to teach each student the mastery of skills useful to achieve the student’s life goals.  Whether those goals are to attend a university, technical school, or to immediately enter the work force, certain skills are required to achieve success.  Observation, listening, reasoning, problem solving, organization, time management are among the skills each person will need to succeed.

Studying a specific subject or collection of subjects is, historically, an effective way to teach observation, listening, reasoning, problem solving, organization, and time management.  The by-product of a course of study is knowledge about a specific topic.  The study of a variety of subjects exposes the primary and secondary student to potential careers and helps them identify their personal aptitudes and gifts.  Based upon this acquired knowledge, students will choose the direction and course of their lives.

It is during the post secondary education process (college, technical schools etc…) when it becomes necessary for students to acquire mastery of specific subjects related to their field of interest.  The student will use this education to support themselves, their families, and contribute to the society in which they live.

Primary and secondary schools where this distinction is appreciated tend to excel in training good citizens and are more likely to produce academic excellence as a by- product.  Conversely, schools which focus primarily on academic performance are likely to release more disenfranchised, angry, even hostile citizens, along with a few good students, into society.  Accepting the premise that schools exist to train young people to be successful in the real world requires the examination of discipline as a training aid and obligation of the education system.  

Some people think of discipline as punishment.  Punishment is one facet of discipline but it is not the whole.  Discipline is about reward.  One can reward positive or negative behavior.  A true disciplinarian understands how to encourage a person to repeat positive behavior through positive reward and how to discourage unwanted behavior using negative reward.  The consistent application of firm and fair discipline produces a solid foundation on which a child can build a successful pattern of behavior, which will allow the child to learn.

The earlier in a child’s education career this foundation is laid, the sooner the child can begin exploring and learning new life skills.  Each child who begins school comes from a different family with a different set of social mores and values.  When they arrive at school they must adapt to a broader concept of society and learn to live within a broader group.  Standardization of conduct is essential to the success of an individual in a culture.  If a person’s conduct falls outside the standard, in any society, they are ostracized, marginalized, or perhaps criminalized by that society and are prohibited from achieving success.

Each child needs to begin the process of recognizing that school, and later society, are not the same as their family.  In order to be successful the child must realize they must accept and adhere to certain standards.  One very simple method of teaching this valuable early lesson has been, for the most part, abandoned by public schools.  The controversy of the dress code exists because most do not recognize it as a teaching tool.

What is a dress code?

Simply stated, a dress code is a rule promulgated by an authority to promote the desired attention to detail, to present a particular image, and to eliminate unproductive distraction from the task at hand.  Every company, corporation, business, profession, vocation, or job, on the planet earth requires some type of dress code.  All schools profess to have a dress code as well.  The difference is, in the real world dress codes are regularly and routinely enforced.

For example, if you work for a fast food restaurant and fail to appear for work in a proper uniform, you will not work there very long.  An attorney who comes dressed for the beach to a stockholders meeting, or consultation with an important client, will likewise not be employed long.  Would you feel good about paying your plumber who wears a $5,000.00 Armani suit to work on your plumbing?  Even exotic dancers have a …well, an undress code.  In short, society expects the individual to “dress for success” in their field of endeavor.

The only places where dress codes are routinely ignored are public educational facilities.  The public school is in an admittedly awkward position because they cannot fire their students.  Add to this difficulty, parents who will not support the school if it decides to discipline a child for a dress code violation and in fact, may become litigious over the issue.  The consequence?  Academic oriented school officials see dress code violations as a minor issue and not worth the trouble.

The prevailing view is that as long as students do their homework and produce academically, or more importantly on state mandated achievement tests, what difference does it make how they are dressed.  Teachers and administrators come to view the issue of dress as a tool to control the activities of those who rebel against the academic culture of school.  The dress code is quickly reduced to a simple punishment tool, often used in a sporadic and arbitrary way.  The evidence of this philosophy is clear in the nature of the published dress codes of must public educational facilities.

Typical school dress codes have become “cannot wear lists.”  These lists are attempts to prevent students from dressing in a sexually inappropriate manner, to prevent the display of disruptive ideas such as racism, gang violence, drugs, alcohol, and other offensive displays designed to cause offense.

The problem with these kinds of lists is they require a great deal of maintenance.  The list must be updated repeatedly, as students find creative ways to alter their clothing to express inappropriate ideas or messages using methods of dress or accessories not prohibited by the cannot wear list.