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Citing Ban on Gays, Rochester Bars Military Recruiters

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The Rochester, N.Y., school board has voted to bar armed-forces recruiters from the city's schools because of the military's ban on homosexuals, but the move is being challenged in court as an alleged violation of state law.

The policy, adopted by the beard early last month on a 5-to-2 vote, is believed to be the first by a major school district to bar military recruiters solely on the basis of the armed forces' exclusion of homosexuals.

In a lawsuit filed in a state court Dec. 20, David J. Lloyd, a 17-year-old junior at Rochester's Edison Technical High School, contends that the policy violates a New York State education law requiting school districts to give military recruiters the same access to students afforded other educational or job recruiters.

The suit is being underwritten by Citizens for a Decent Community, a local conservative organization.

Donald Schmitt, the associate counsel for the school district, said last week that he considered the new policy "compatible" with the law because the policy is worded to include any recruiter or employer that has a written discrimination policy. Thus, he said, the military is not the only recruiter subject to the rule.

"If another recruiter discriminated on the same basis, they'd be treated the same way," Mr. Schmitt said.

A legal official with the state education department said last week that her agency had no position on whether Rochester's policy violates the education law. Sharon Byrd, a senior attorney in the department's office of counsel, said the department would be unlikely to make a determination on the issue in the absence of a formal complaint to Commissioner of Education Thomas Sobol.

Douglas Smith, a spokesman for the U.S. Army recruitment command in Fort Sheridan, Ill., said last month that his agency did not plan to contest the policy.

"We don't like what's happened," but "we really don't want to be in an adversarial position with the schools," said Mr. Smith, who made his comments before Mr. Lloyd's suit was filed.

'Fundamental Principles'

The new Rochester policy prohibits the on-campus recruitment of students by any organization that '%as a stated policy which discriminates against any person on the basis of race, color, religion, handicap, sex, creed, political beliefs, age, economic status, or sexual orientation .... "

Rochester officials said the recruitment ban, which had been discussed informally for more than a year, builds on the district's longstanding civil-rights policies forbidding discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The district also forbids the release of students' names, addresses, and telephone numbers for recruitment purposes.

"We just extended fundamental principles," the board's president, Catherine Spote, said of the decision.

Ms. Spoto said that the board acted in response to concerns raised by : the Gay Alliance of the Genesee Valley, a local advocacy group.

"We see it fundamentally as a civil-rights issue," she said. "It's not an anti-military policy, but an anti-discrimination policy."

Mark Siwiec, a former vice president of the local gay-rights group, said the organization lobbied for the new policy because "we saw it as our responsibility to gay youth to come forward and say this is not appropriate." He noted that homosexuals often do not acknowledge their sexual orientation until they become adults.

The Rochester schools, he said, are joining "a choir of voices" nationwide that are contesting the U.S. Defense Department's "out of step" rule.

Similar Action in California

In restricting the military's access to students or student information, Rochester joins at least three large California districts that took similar steps at the time of the Persian Gulf war.

Last January, school beards in Los Angeles, Oakland, and San Francisco reversed longstanding policies of supplying student information to military recruiters. The San Francisco board also barred on-campus recruitment by the armed forces, a move that board members there said was influenced in part by the Pentagon's policy on homosexuals. (See Education Week, Jan. 30, 1991)

Rochester officials said the district's policy would not keep students from obtaining information about the military from school counselors.

According to the district, in a typical year between 5 percent and 10 percent of the school system's graduates enlist in the military.

Although Mr. Smith of the U.S. Army predicted that the new rule would not stymie recruitment efforts, a local military recruiter disagreed.

Local recruiters will surely feel the difference, said William B. Knowlton, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Syracuse Recruiting Battalion, which oversees recruiting in central and western New York.

"Yes, it's going to make it more difficult," he said, adding that, under the new policy, "it's going to be harder for kids who need to know about Army opportunities."

Five years ago, the Rochester beard voted to give peace counselors the same access to students as that allowed to the military, said Jack Bradigan-Spula, the coordinator of the Peace and Justice Education Center in Rochester. Peace groups will continue to have access to students under the new policy.

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