Can School Dress Codes Help Curb Gang Violence?

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.