For the first time in over a decade, Atlantic City High School students this year will no longer be required to wear uniforms to school, according to a notice posted to the district’s website this week.
Principal LaQuetta Small did not respond to a request for comment on the policy change, nor did Superintendent Barry Caldwell.
“The board believes school dress code can enhance the school learning environment, establish greater school pride and promote a safe and friendly environment for all students,” reads the new dress code policy posted online. “Proper grooming sets the tone for a respectable high school. Although it is not within the province of the school to dictate styles, it is our responsibility to strive for a positive learning atmosphere. Anything which might distract from that must, in fairness to all, be discouraged.”
In the mid-2000s and early 2010s, several area schools, including Middle Township, Vineland, Bridgeton and Atlantic City, began mandating uniforms, which were controversial among students, parents and school board members.
When the policy was first approved in 2006 at Bridgeton, some students there pleaded with school board members not to approve the uniform policy.
“It’s my last year in high school, and I don’t want to spend money on a uniform that I’m only going to wear one year,” said Tim Zoyac in 2006, then a rising Bridgeton senior who sported a handwritten sign taped to his chest that read: “We aren’t inmates. Don’t make us wear uniforms.”
In Atlantic City, when the policy passed in 2007, school officials said they hoped to provide a better learning atmosphere and believed the uniforms would help control violence related to gangs, many of which are identified by the colors they wear. While some students spoke out against the rules, others encouraged them and even suggested requiring clear backpacks.
Atlantic City’s dress code regulation, created in May 2002 and edited in July 2013, laid out uniform guidelines with younger students required to wear khaki-style pants and a polo or button-down shirt and high school students a choice of solid black and dark navy blue docker-style, corduroy or dress pants and solid white, solid black or solid navy blue collared shirts.
The new rules posted this week include keeping a clean and well-groomed appearance, avoiding extremes in appearance that are disrupting or distracting, and no tolerance for dress or grooming that jeopardizes student safety. The policy includes a list of inappropriate content for clothing that includes obscenities and vulgarities in pictures or words, hats or hoods, drug or gang references, midriff-baring clothes, clothes that are extremely tight or reveal undergarments, and spaghetti-strap or sleeveless tops, among other exclusions.
Atlantic City parent Gina Roche-Rosenberg said she was only recently informed of the policy change and was frustrated.
“Most of us are in distress,” she said. “We now have to buy different clothes other than the uniforms we’ve purchased for years. This makes no sense.”
Roche-Rosenberg said that the change will create a financial burden for families who cannot afford high-end clothing brands.
“This is going to stress out so many kids and parents,” she said.
Hassam Kaleem, 18, an incoming Stockton University freshman who graduated in June from Atlantic City High School, said he heard about the new policy through social media.
“It’s good that they got rid of it. We thought that was going to happen for a long time,” Kaleem said. “People are excited.”
Kaleem said that during his time at Atlantic City High, the dress code was only enforced randomly, and when it was, students, including himself, would spend the day in in-school suspension over their clothes.
“A lot of people I know, smart people, would get in trouble for dress code,” he said, adding he didn’t comply with the dress code because he didn’t own the proper attire. “I just don’t wear those clothes, I never had them.”
Matthew Buesing, 38, of Cape May Court House, was a member of the Middle Township Board of Education when it began requiring uniforms in 2003.
“Our motivation then was to improve the learning climate in our school. We recognized from the beginning that a uniform policy was not a silver bullet to solve all the problems of the school district,” Buesing said.
He said the district took enforcement seriously because the No. 1 reason school dress code policies fail is a lack of consistent enforcement. In the first year, he said, the district saw measurable success in student disciplinary actions and test scores attributable to the uniforms.
Since leaving Middle Township schools, Buesing is now vice president of consumer and digital marketing for a group called LP Apparel, which has its own schoolwear brand. He said the transition away from hard-and-fast school uniform policies has been underway nationally for the past few years.
“It’s kind of reached a middle spot,” he said. “The idea behind public school uniforms was that every year you revise that code. As the whole children’s wear and schoolwear market has evolved, these codes have been lessened. It’s still school-appropriate clothing, it’s just not your typical uniform piece.”
Middle Township has relaxed its uniform policies slightly since Buesing left the board, allowing students to wear a variety of shirt colors, among other changes, responding to students’ desire for self-expression and current trends. Buesing said school uniform policies shouldn’t cause strife or become just as controversial as not having a dress code in the first place.
“It is a balance,” he said.