Plans for J.R.O.T.C. in New York School Stir Debate

By Peter Schmidt — November 01, 1989 4 min read

Plans to establish an Air Force Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program in a New York City high school named for Martin Luther King Jr. have sparked an emotional debate that pits a majority of the school’s teachers against city school officials.

The board of education is attempting to defuse the conflict by asking New York’s Congressional representatives to help persuade the Air Force to move the program to a school elsewhere in the city, Madge Devlin, a special assistant to the board’s president, Robert F. Wagner Jr., said last week.

Meanwhile, prominent political leaders and many teachers, parents, and students at the Manhattan school remain divided over the elective program. Proponents say it would increase opportunities for minority students, while critics argue that it would mock the principles of nonviolence espoused by the civil-rights leader.

Principal Caesar Previdi said the dispute has left him torn between his need to follow the board’s directive to implement the program, beginning in February, and his desire to give a greater voice in school management to his teachers, most of whom oppose the program.

The three-year course consists of one period a day of instruction, including classroom work and field drills. The program integrates the social and physical sciences and focuses on the aerospace industry and aviation history, according to a course description.

Mr. Previdi said students who wish to enroll must have the informed consent of their parents and are not required to stay in the course or to enter the armed forces or college ROTC upon graduation.

The program is slated to cost $64,000 a year, to be split evenly between the Air Force and the school, officials said.

Junior ROTC programs “are very popular in the community,” said Ms. Devlin of the board of education.

Proponents of bringing the Air Force program to Martin Luther King Jr. High School have argued that it would teach young people discipline and leadership skills and could help them qualify for scholarships and for admission to the Air Force Academy. They deny that the program is militaristic, noting that it does not include any training in the use of weapons.

But teachers who oppose the program charge that it does not belong in a school named for Dr. King.

“The ROTC is a military program. The ROTC is an instrument of war,” said Nina B. de Fels, a business-education teacher who has been a leader of the opposition. “I think it would be national embarrassment to have it in our school.”

Noting that 65 percent of the 3,500 students at the school are black and less than 1 percent are white, Ms. de Fels and Wayne D. Fischer, a grade adviser for the school’s special-education department, also charged that the program “smacks of racism.” They maintained that ROTC programs tend to move into city schools with heavy minority populations, and often steer the best students away from college and into the military.

More than 45,000 high-school students are enrolled in 316 Air Force junior ROTC programs nationwide, according to Capt. L. William Stephenson Jr., a spokesman for the program. Currently, he said, 95 high schools are on a waiting list for 19 other program slots authorized by the Congress.

Under ROTC rules, he said, Martin Luther King Jr High backs out of the program, its slot would most likely go to the next school on the list, which is located in Rochester, N.Y.

Mr. Previdi said he initially favored the program when approached by the Air Force in 1987, because he felt it would offer new opportunities for the students of his school.

“If you take a photograph of the United States Air Force, I doubt that it is a sea of black faces,” Mr. Previdi said. “The very nature of racism is that it precludes access.”

The board of education passed a resolution last year authorizing the program at the school. It was only after that vote, Mr. Previdi said, that he encountered teacher resistance to the idea.

The principal, who has introduced a school-reorganization plan that stresses teacher involvement in decision making, agreed to let teachers hold a forum on the issue last April. They voted, 102 to 59, to reject the program. Although the vote was nonbinding, Mr. Previdi said he found it “compelling” enough to seek to reverse the board’s decision.

Ms. Devlin said the board informally agreed in June to make an attempt to have the program transferred to another school in the system, only to discover that ROTC rules would not allow it. Board officials are hoping, she said, that lobbying by members of the city’s Congressional delegation will induce the Air Force to waive the rules.

Both sides in the dispute have found strong support from outside the school.

The board has received letters supporting the program from U.S. Representative Thomas J. Manton, a Democrat from Queens, and U.S. Senator Alfonse M. D’Amato of New York, a Republican.

On record as opposing the program are two of the city’s House members, Representatives Ted Weiss of Manhattan and Major R. Owens of Brooklyn, both Democrats.

The opponents have also received extensive lobbying and organizational support from the United Federation of Teachers, which holds that the board should abide by the decision of the school’s teachers, and Advocates for Children, a nonprofit group that opposes all military programs in schools. The group fought unsuccessfully against the implementation of a Navy junior ROTC program at Julia Richman High School in Manhattan in 1982.