Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Automatic enrollment in ROTC provokes protest at high school
News Staff Reporter
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Andrew Norman/Buffalo News
Wendy Van Scoter, a Lovejoy area resident, says her 14-year-old daughter, Jennifer Brown, was placed in Junior ROTC without her knowledge. She said she never received a letter from the school.
Unless they opted out, freshmen at Hutchinson-Central Technical High School were automatically enrolled this fall in Junior ROTC.

About 300 parents of freshmen received letters in August, informing them their children would be enrolled in the daily, 42-minute program unless they objected before the start of school. About 190 students at the school on South Elmwood Avenue were in the program when classes began. The number dropped to 157 following objections by parents and students, who were reassigned to study hall.

Now, the New York Civil Liberties Union is demanding that the practice be stopped.

"The school has engaged in a blatant violation of students' and parents' rights under the state education law by auto-enrolling freshmen in Junior ROTC," said Donna Lieberman, the NYCLU's executive director. "Under the law the school has no authority to enroll a student in Junior ROTC without prior written parental consent."

State education law says "enrollment and participation in [Junior ROTC] is voluntary on the part of the student, and written consent of a parent or guardian is [required]."

Principal David Greco, a strong supporter of Junior ROTC, said he believes the policy is legal and does not violate state education law.

"I don't feel I have done anything wrong," Greco said. "Any parent that didn't comply in time with their child was processed out of the class in a reasonable manner."

Greco said he was following a little-known provision of the federal No Child Left Behind law - and not the state law on Junior ROTC - that makes federal funding for schools contingent on providing the military with student contact lists. Also under the law, the schools are required to let students and/or their parents opt off such lists.

Wendy Van Scoter, a Lovejoy area resident, said her 14-year-old daughter, Jennifer Brown, had been placed in Junior ROTC without her knowledge. She said she never received a letter from the school.

"My daughter wanted to be in band. She didn't want to be in [Junior ROTC]," Scoter said.

Van Scoter said she appealed to an assistant superintendent, who told her time had passed for changing her daughter's schedule. Jennifer, who plays clarinet, wasn't switched to band until Tuesday, after producing a note from her doctor.

"I feel I had the right to decide," Van Scoter said.

Bruce Beyer, whose daughter, Elizabeth, is a friend of Jennifer's, said he was angry over what he called a "renegade recruitment operation."

"This is crazy. This isn't the draft. . . . It's high school," said Beyer, who said he believes parents and students now enrolled in the program should be asked if their participation is voluntary.

Beyer, a longtime opponent of military activity on campus, was arrested in 1968 as one of the "ROTC 19," which, during the Vietnam War era, helped remove the program from the University at Buffalo - one of many schools during that period that to drop it.

Yet Beyer said he has no objection to the high school offering Junior ROTC if it obtains written consent.

"As long as people don't know their rights, a man like Mr. Greco can do pretty much what ever he wants," Beyer said.

He also wondered about placing ROTC in Buffalo Public Schools.

"I would bet 10-to-1 that there is not much ROTC recruiting going on in Amherst, Williamsville or Clarence," he said.

The Army program, which is not offered in Buffalo's suburbs, also operates in McKinley and South Park high schools, where written consent is required, according to retired Lt. Col. James McNicholas, Junior ROTC's project administrator for Buffalo Public Schools.

After being told of parental concerns, McNicholas said school system officials will have to re-
examine Hutch-Central Technical's apparent conflict with state law.

"We need to have some type of legal advice as to whether or not what we have done is OK, or if we need to change the way we are approaching it," McNicholas said.

Promising a review, James Keane, chief of staff for the Buffalo Public Schools, said, "We are looking into it and anticipate changes to the current practice."

Lieberman, of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said a change must be made.

"It seems to me that the law is pretty clear here," she said, "and it doesn't allow schools to compel students to enroll in a military program."