Can School Dress Codes Help Curb Gang Violence?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

I want to follow up on something that jumped out at me from our collection of dress code rules: the ones justified as a way of preventing students from joining gangs (Olga noted that trend here). “We weren’t allowed to wear any Dickies-brand clothing or backpacks,” writes one reader who attended a Georgia public school in the early 2000s. “They were considered a ‘gang symbol’.” Another reader: “Because one of the gangs had adopted Mickey Mouse as one of its symbols, we were not allowed to wear anything with Mickey Mouse on it.”

This reader thinks school administrators invoke gangs as a catch-all for dress violations:

Everyone I knew who violated the dress code did so for almost exactly the same reason: wearing clothes that were too baggy or wearing something that was believed to be gang-affiliated. A particularly unusual example of this is when a star-student friend of mine came to school with a mohawk and had to get it shaved off. Some of the teachers believed it demonstrated some sort of gang affiliation, which it clearly did not.

Whether Dickies or Mickeys or mohawks are gang-related symbols remains an open question, but do dress codes actually help prevent students from joining gangs? I reached out to Professor Todd A. DeMitchell of the University of New Hampshire, who, along with University of Louisiana Professor Richard Fossey (the pair co-authored a book on dress codes and the First Amendment), emailed some thoughts. They begin with some historical context:

For nearly a century, student-dress codes and the litigation they have spawned have been important policy concerns for the public schools. One of the earliest legal battles was Pugsley v. Sellmeyer, a 1923 case out of Arkansas. In that dispute, Pearl Pugsley was disciplined for wearing talcum powder on her face in violation of a school policy prohibiting students from wearing transparent hosiery, “face-paint,” cosmetics, or immodest dress.

The Arkansas Supreme Court upheld the school’s rule on the grounds that it was reasonable and not oppressive, but in later years, courts have sometimes sided with students in dress-code disputes.

Thus, while most courts have approved bans on the wearing of Confederate flags and insignias on the grounds that these symbolic forms of expression may trigger racial conflict, they have split with regard to whether students have a First Amendment right to affix other social and political messages on their clothing. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a student has no constitutional right to wear a T-shirt condemning homosexuals, while the Seventh Circuit held that students have a First Amendment right to wear T-shirts proclaiming, “Be Happy, Not Gay.”

Until recently, most school boards justified student dress codes on the grounds that they instill a sense of decorum, reflect community values, and promote an atmosphere conducive to learning. For example, in a 1995 opinion, an Indiana appellate court upheld a school policy against boys wearing earrings, ruling that the school board had the authority to enforce community standards. However, students have continued to assert the right to wear what they choose to school regardless of community standards, and they have sometimes prevailed.

Nevertheless, so far at least, no court has ruled that schools are without authority to enforce standards of modesty and cleanliness in student clothing.

Here they get into the gang factor (emphasis mine):

More recently, school districts have asserted a second justification for policing students’ clothing choices: the fear that certain clothing is affiliated with gangs and undermines a safe school environment. Indeed, as DeMitchell and Cobb stated in their study of New England school superintendents, “It is a sad commentary that security, as a value to be pursued in educational policy making, has joined the traditional values of excellence, equity, choice, and efficiency.”

In response to rampage shootings like the ones that took place at Columbine, West Paducah, and Sandy Hook, school authorities have implemented a variety of policy responses, including emergency drills, lock-down procedures, and dress codes banning all black clothing, Goth style clothing, and trench coats.

By and large, courts have been sympathetic to school administrators who seek to enforce school rules to promote student safety. The courts recognize that violence and drugs have become a significant threat in many schools. As an Illinois court put it in a 1996 opinion:

We long for the time when children did not have to pass through metal detectors on their way to class, when hall monitors were other children, not armed guards, when students dressed for school without worrying about gang colors. Those were the days when sharp words, crumpled balls of paper, and at worst the bully’s fist were the weapons of choice.

Without a doubt, gang activity at school negatively impacts the safety of all students. As Michelle Arciaga, Wayne Sakamoto, and Errika Fearby Jones wrote in the National Gang Center Bulletin (November 2010), “Gang members do not leave their conflicts, attitudes, and behaviors outside the school doors. Some of the most dangerous gang activities in any community may take place in and around local schools.”

Since gang members often wear specific items of clothing to signal their gang affiliation, it makes sense for schools to enact regulations that target gang-related apparel. The idea is to restrict the symbols associated with gang membership so that gang members cannot outwardly identify themselves as being part of a gang, thus reducing the likelihood of violence. These regulations, it is asserted, also protect non-gang students from being mistakenly targeted by gang members as a rival.

Two questions arise regarding the use of dress codes to curb gang influence and gang violence. First, are the dress codes constitutional? In other words, do dress codes infringe on the free speech rights of students to express themselves in the school environment? Second, is there research showing that dress code policies are effective in reducing violence and the influence of gangs at school?

A Texas case decided in 1997 illustrates the constitutional concerns about dress codes enacted to suppress gang activity. In Chalifoux v. New Caney Independent School District, a gang known as the United Homies wore rosaries at school, and the school district banned students from wearing rosaries on the grounds that they signaled affiliation with a gang. However, not all students who wore rosaries to school were gang members. Therefore a federal court ruled that the rosary ban infringed on the First Amendment rights of students to express their sincere religious beliefs.

Regarding the second question—whether dress codes have any impact on reducing school violence—research does not support the position that school rules restricting student clothing have any significant effect on safety and security.

Proponents of student-dress codes that target gang-related apparel typically do not cite evidence to support their claims that such codes are efficacious. For example, the National Crime Prevention Council argued that school dress codes banning styles of clothing associated with gangs “can . . . alleviate the worries of students by reducing the gang’s visibility and therefore alleviating pressure for students to join a gang.” This is a reasonable supposition, but no research supports that view. Newspaper accounts and anecdotes are no substitute for empirical evidence supporting restrictions on student dress.

Without a doubt, violence and gang activities are serious problems in many of our nation’s schools, but there are no easy solutions. Too often school leaders adopt simplistic responses like dress codes that require students to refrain from wearing certain items of clothing or clothing of a particular color. Some school districts have even mandated school uniforms that give students no discretion whatsoever about what they wear to school.

But more is required to suppress school violence than rules prescribing what students wear to school. As a high school sophomore observed about a restrictive dress code aimed at gangs wrote:

It doesn’t fix the disease. It covers the symptoms. I think that we’re still going to have the same gang problem. We’re just going to be angry at the administration, and I don’t think that’s the way to go.

Few would disagree with the proposition that students should adhere to basic standards of modesty and decorum when they dress for school.  But the notion that restrictions on student dress can make schools safer or improve academic outcomes has no empirical basis. To expect that a ban on students wearing certain types of clothing will transform a school into a safe harbor free from the incursion of gangs and violence offers a vain hope and a false promise. The root causes of violence in the nation’s schools are far more complex and difficult to address than simple restrictions on students’ clothing choices.