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Hispanic families urge school uniforms

Alarmed by increased gang activity in the area, several Spanish-speaking families have asked the Medford School District to consider requiring school uniforms for students.

A letter sent to the School Board on Nov. 18 from 17 parents cited recent gang-related incidents in Medford and said uniforms would reduce the problem created by clothing colors associated with gangs.

"They think that would help alleviate the gang activities in our communities," said Yolanda Ortega, a North Medford High English language development teaching assistant.

She and other members of her department worked with the parents to draft the letter and put their words into English.

The parents raised concerns that school colors are red and black at North Medford High School and blue and gray at South Medford high. The Nortenos, "northerners" in Spanish, identify themselves with the color red, while the Surenos, or "southerners," often wear blue.

"Some parents are worried about their students being targeted because they were wearing a specific color," Ortega said.

She said the concern increased after a recent gang-related stabbing on Sept. 15 on Beatty Street and a separate stabbing at a coming-of-age party on Nov. 7 for a 15-year-old girl at the Ramada Inn on Biddle Road.

Gang activity still has not had much effect in local schools, Ortega said, adding that students who appear to have any gang affiliation tend not to stay in school for very long.

Some school districts around the country have adopted dress codes or require uniforms.

Waldo Middle School in Salem has had a dress code since 1997, giving students choices among four colors: navy, white, dark green or tan. Only solid colors can be worn, and the school has other restrictions on the type of clothing. In a 1998 legislative report, it noted that discipline problems fell 23 percent in the year after the dress code was adopted.

Ortega said there was discussion among parents about the cost of uniforms and how some families would pay for them.

"Parents can't afford to buy the uniforms," she said.

Eric Dziura, Medford School Board chairman, said the idea of uniforms is not an issue that's currently on the district's radar.

"There is nothing that would warrant it at this point," he said.

Dziura said he first heard of the request from parents on Friday.

During recent talks with the Medford Police Department, School Board members learned that gang activity has increased in the area, Dziura said. But there have been no reports of increased problems at schools, he said.

The idea of school uniforms could be considered by the School Board in the future, he said, if there is an uptick in gang activity on campuses.

"If we have particular concerns, we'll take it up," Dziura said.

Kim Lockett, an English language development teacher at North Medford, said very few students are affiliated with gangs.

"It does not impact daily school activity, usually — certainly not in the classrooms," said Lockett.

She said requiring uniforms might reduce the potential for gang activity at the school, but it wouldn't solve the underlying problem.

"I think it's more complex than colors," she said. "In the long term, what young men need is an education — and young women do, too.

"Kids who think they don't have a future turn to gangs."

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476, or e-mail dmann@mailtribune.com.