School uniforms are the fashionable way to counteract the power of gangs. Lucy Hodges reports. Californian schools, fed up with the gang attire worn by many pupils - baggy jeans, over-sized T-shirts and bandanas - are beginning to experiment with uniforms.
To the amazement of the rest of America, who view Californians as relaxed, if not flakey, elementary and middle schools in Long Beach are requiring children to wear uniforms. Other school districts are watching the Long Beach model with interest and Baltimore, Maryland, as well as Los Angeles and San Diego, are already trying out the idea.
Behind the move to tighten up on dress lies concern about gangs and violence in schools. The thinking is that by requiring all pupils to wear black or navy trousers or skirts, and white shirts or blouses, schools will reduce the clout of the gangs.
"We are really the prototype for this kind of thing," said Mr Van Der Laan, spokesman for the Long Beach school district. "Every large city in the US has been concerned about the gangs. Their clothes really are an unofficial uniform of intimidation."
The district has now decided to make uniforms mandatory, as from this autumn. The policy applies only to the 57,000 children in elementary and middle schools, where parental demand was most intense and the children more malleable. The idea was to dissuade children from wearing gang clothes at an early age.
If the policy works, it may be extended to high schools. And if it catches on with other school districts, it will amount to a revolution in American schooling. Traditionally American pupils have been allowed to wear what they like and to flaunt their individuality, in keeping with the relatively high degree of autonomy accorded to American youth.
The district's initiative has already spurred the state into action. The California legislature passed a law in the summer laying out procedures by which other school districts could adopt their own dress codes.
One aim is to pre-empt legal challenges by the civil liberties lobby. The new Californian law requires a school district to consult with parents, teachers and headteachers before adopting a uniform code. It says that parents must be given six months' warning before a code comes into force. And it gives parents the right to opt out by showing good reason why their children should not have to wear uniforms.
By British standards, the Long Beach uniform policy is relaxed. Headteachers may choose the exact look of the uniform. Pupils are allowed to wear shorts and polo shirts (T-shirts with collars) instead of trousers and shirts or skirts and blouses. The school decides on colours, and the code does not cover jackets and coats.
It has not all been plain sailing. Some parents complained that they could not afford the $30 or $40 (Pounds 20-Pounds 26) which it costs to buy a uniform. They are receiving help. Long Beach is also examining setting up a recycling centre to sell second-hand uniforms.
The American Civil Liberties Union says that the policy is "meaningless" as a way of dealing with gang intimidation. A local lawyer is already bringing a lawsuit on the grounds that the code interferes with freedom of expression.
While one or two parents have withdrawn their children most parents seem to approve. They feel the uniforms will improve the classroom atmosphere.
* Violence, including murder and assault, is up dramatically in many American schools, according to a study by the National League of Cities which discovered that one in four communities reported incidents resulting in serious injury or death.
"School is getting rough," said Carolyn Long Banks, the organisation's president-elect.
The US Centre for Disease Control said there have been 107 homicides and suicides in schools in the past two years. Nearly 4,000 weapons, including four rifles, were seized in New York City schools, despite metal detectors at the entrances. Schools in Cabrillo, California, have removed student storage lockers where knives and guns can be concealed and many schools have introduced surveillance cameras, gun-sniffing dogs and weapon searches.