The Tuesday after Labor Day found many kids returning to school from summer vacation. While those at Beverly High showed up in summer tan-revealing tanks and short shorts, at Milken Community High School, neither tank top, nor short shorts, nor T-shirt could be seen.
Milken has implemented a stricter dress code this year, and just three weeks in, it has demonstrated its intention to enforce it. Call it a throwback to the 1950s, with teachers doing double-duty as fashion police, going as far as putting rulers to girls' skirts to ensure hems aren't too short.
"It can only be three inches above the knee, so teachers are actually taking rulers and making sure they're not higher than three inches," 11th-grader Katie Pepperman said.
Pepperman didn't say it resentfully. Like many -- and perhaps even most -- of the students at Milken, Pepperman actually supports the change.
"I like it. Everyone just looks a lot cleaner, and people don't judge each other as much because of what they're wearing," the 16-year-old said. "None of my friends are really strongly against it."
It's a surprising notion that teenagers would actually be in favor of rules inhibiting their behavior and their freedom of sartorial expression. But maybe that's just considering the alternative.
"A lot of the kids that want their freedoms are just glad that at least we don't have to wear uniforms," Pepperman said.
Many Jewish high schools in Los Angeles have some type of dress code, from the uniforms at religious schools like Yeshiva of Los Angeles (YULA) and Bais Chana and Bais Yaacov to the dress codes at Shalhevet and Milken. Milken has always had a dress code, but this year, it is a stricter dress code -- and it will be more strictly enforced.
T-shirts are no longer allowed at Milken, nor are skirts that fall higher than three inches above the knee. Students may wear collared polo or button-down shirts, sweaters or turtlenecks with fitted khaki-style denim or other dress pants, shorts or appropriate-length skirts.
"The school mission and value statements concerning modesty, tzeniut," is a major reason for the change, Milken principal Roger Fuller said. That, he said, and creating a "learning atmosphere" within the school.
"I don't think that T-shirts indicate that we're engaged in anything very meaningful," Fuller said.
The desire to create a more meaningful learning atmosphere in the classroom has motivated secular schools to adopt stricter dress guidelines, as well.
Beginning with the Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD) in 1994, public schools nationwide have begun adopting a mandatory school uniform policy. According to Children's Business magazine, "many of the schools that aren't adopting a uniform policy are, at the very least, beginning to dictate stricter, more formal dress codes."
Having witnessed the apparent success of LBUSD's new policy, President Bill Clinton advocated replicating the policy nationwide in his 1996 State of the Union Address, saying, "If it means that teenagers will stop killing each other over designer jackets, then our public schools should be able to require their students to wear uniforms."
In opposition to such a change, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) pointed out that LBUSD hadn't implemented the policy for teenagers. Rather, it had only been applied to elementary and middle schools.
In a March 1996 response to Clinton's address, Loren Siegel, ACLU public education department director, wrote, "While younger children may be amenable to uniforms -- might even like them -- teenagers are different. It's axiomatic that adolescence is a time when young people strive to express their uniqueness and individuality in many different ways, and especially through fashion."
"I grew up not wearing [uniforms], but I'm pretty sure I wouldn't like it," said Jessica Foroozan, a senior at Beverly Hills High School. "It takes away from your freedom and your ability to show your own style, and basically your opinion,"
Public schools like Beverly do have dress codes, but Foroozan pointed out that her high school's code is much more lenient: no bare midriffs or visible undergarments for girls, and no gang-affiliated clothing or hats for boys. Similar dress codes apply at Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) schools. But Foroozan said that at her school, at least, the code is rarely enforced.
"It's Beverly Hills High School, you know? The teachers aren't very disciplining," she said.
Not everyone at Milken is thrilled about the strict enforcement.
"Ninety percent of students on high school campuses throughout the United States wear T-shirts or sport jerseys to school every day," one Milken parent wrote anonymously to The Journal. "But at Milken that won't be allowed. Milken will have 'Stepford Students.'"
Junior Tammy Kremer said that before school started, she'd had concerns in the vein of the "Stepford Student" letter, but when she got to school, she found, "I didn't look like everyone else, so it didn't bother me."
From different colored collared shirts, to short skirts paired with leggings underneath, to unique belts and jewelry, Kremer said "people find a way of infusing it with their own style, so I think it's good."
Uniformed students walking to Jewish private schools along Fairfax Avenue and Pico Boulevard seem to back up her point. The infusion of style wherever possible is readily apparent on girls in long skirts and long-sleeved blouses to boys in dark pants and dress shirts.
Whether it is one student's brightly colored platform sneakers or another's designer backpack, none are free of a bit of unique flash. Accessories, rather than the clothes, themselves, become the distraction.
Proponents of uniforms in public schools cite higher achievement, a more democratic atmosphere and safety as the positive effects of such a policy. They argue that students dressed for success are truant and absent less often and bring a higher level of professionalism to the classroom.
Further, there is the Clintonian argument that students are, in the first place, less divided, because it's harder to tell who can afford a designer jacket, and in the second place, less likely to therefore kill one another over it.
It is true that within one year of LBUSD's implementation of its uniform policy, it noted higher test scores and decreases in discipline problems and violence. However, opponents, like the ACLU, note that the district's data was self-generated, and that other changes in policy, including an increase in the amount of teachers patrolling hallways during class changes, make it difficult to determine the cause of these positive effects.
"The fact is that there are no empirical studies that show that uniforms consistently produce positive changes in student behavior over the long run," Siegel wrote. "At best, school uniform policies are purely experimental."
As for Milken's experiment, Fuller noted that the decision was made after numerous conversations with parents and students over the past three years, with the number of discussions significantly increasing this last year.
"It was not a decision we made unilaterally in a vacuum," the principal said.
While it's too early to tell what effects the dress code will have on the school, students point out a more professional atmosphere that is more conducive to learning.
"A lot of skin was being shown last year," Pepperman said.
It also appears that students have at least absorbed the lesson behind the school's decision.
"I think that a Jewish environment should be a place where people are modest and can relate to each other on another level," Kremer said. "It teaches us a lesson about how to look at people. Instead of looking at them by what they're wearing, you're looking at them by who they are." n