St. Paul School Board OKs ROTC: Gays say program discriminate
published on August 13, 1993
in Equal Time
Drawing a parallel to President Clinton's compromise on gays in the military, gay political leaders called the St. Paul School Board's recent approval of military training at St. Paul public high schools "a qualified loss."
On Aug. 3, after two hours of emotional public testimony primarily opposing the St. Paul Board of Education's decision to allow the Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) onto three St. Paul high school campuses, the school board voted 6-1 to approve a one-year trial of the program and agreed to monitor Junior ROTC for discrimination. Principals at the three high schools, Harding, Johnson, and Humbolt— will be responsible for monitoring ROTC.
In the same resolution, the school board also voted to tell national lawmakers and educational organizations that the school board opposes Clinton's policy on gays in the military.
Despite the compromise, St. Paul activists call the vote a defeat. "It's another compromised," said Gary Grefenberg, a spokesperson on the ROTC issue for the Christine Jorgensen Caucus, a group of 25 gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender DFLers in St. Paul. "The same month we get sold down the river by President Clinton, we get sold out by the St. Paul school board on Junior ROTC," added Grefenberg.
School board members say Junior ROTC introduces high schoolers to military life and builds strong character while improving their self esteem. Students grades nine to 12 may voluntarily enroll in Junior ROTC this fall.
According to Greg Filice, a school board member, 40,000 students enrolled in St. Paul public schools this year. More than half of the students came from single—parent families. And 25 percent of the high school students dropped out. Thel Kocher, Director for Evaluation, Information and Student Services for the district, says the drop-out rate for grades nine-to 12 is actually 12.7 percent, not the 25 percent figure given at the school board meeting.
"We think we need to do anything we possibly can to help kids graduate and succeed," said Filice. "If we had 100 percent retention, I probably would have voted against this."
Junior ROTC costs #400 annually per student. For every $75 spent by St. Paul taxpayers, the federal government will contribute about $225. Currently, only five Minnesota high schools offer Junior ROTC.
Originally, the school board unconditionally approved Junior ROTC on June 22. But according to Grefenberg, the school board did not seek feedback from the gay community prior to the vote. Subsequent outcry from members of the Christine Jorgensen Caucus brought about a compromise resolution in a committee of the school board on July 27. On Aug. 3, the school board cast its final vote.
Filice, the only school board member who advocated that ROTC be approved under the condition that military brass drop the ban on gays and lesbians, said, "Clearly there are opportunities available for heterosexual persons that are not available to people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender."
Those opportunities include access to ROTC scholarships and college programs. To qualify for those perks, gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth must remain closeted as dictated by Clinton's "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
Some felt sending such messages to teens was wrong. "It contributes to a student's internalized homophobia," said Richard Annett, a member of the Christine Jorgenson Caucus.
The caucus also criticized Junior ROTC's requirements for entry into the program, specifically ROTC's standards for good moral character. It's unclear who or what defines the standard, noted caucus members.
More than three quarters of the people testifying at the Aug. 3 meeting spoke against the school board's resolution. Citizens also objected to Junior ROTC at high school because they claimed it breeds hatred and a militaristic society.
Polly Mann, co-founder of Women Against Military Madness (WAMM), said, "To offer military classes in public schools… says that learning to be a soldier is as much as part of education as learning to read."
Another citizen criticized the board for believing Junior ROTC would foster leadership skills. "The primary function of the military is not to get kids off drugs. It is not to promote leadership skills. And it is not to build self esteem in young people. The primary function of the United States military is to, when called upon to do so, resolve conflict through violence," he said.
Mary Jane Rachner, a long-time and outspoken critic of gay rights, disrupted the mostly orderly meeting with a diatribe of insults and anti-gay sentiments, causing the board to recess for five-minutes halfway through the two-hour testimony.