Peace group says Smith Voke policy would ban alternative views of military recruiting

Last modified: Tuesday, January 07, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — The American Friends Service Committee says a new policy under review by the trustees of Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School is aimed at keeping the peace group off the vocational school campus — a claim school leaders deny.

The proposed policy would ban distribution by outside groups of “literature on controversial issues,” according to a copy obtained by the American Friends Service Committee. It would also grant campus visiting rights only to organizations that offer educational, job or scholarship opportunities to Smith Vocational students.

Jeff Napolitano, director of the Northampton-based western Massachusetts chapter of the AFSC, said those provisions would mean an end to his group’s long-standing practice of offering Smith Vocational students information on alternatives to enlisting in the military.

“We’ve been tabling there for at least the past decade, passing out fliers at lunchtime,” he said. “It’s always been uneventful.”

Further, by limiting campus visits to those groups offering jobs or scholarship funds, the policy means “military recruiters would be allowed at Smith Vocational, but not the AFSC,” Napolitano said. “They’ll be able to openly recruit but we won’t be able to provide alternatives.”

Smith Vocational Principal John Kelly said he believes the policy as written does not exclude the AFSC from tabling or making presentations to classes.

“Their mission is certainly educational and I believe they would fall under the policy,” he said.

Nevertheless, over the weekend, Napolitano’s organization sent out a press release and launched a Facebook page urging local residents to voice their opposition to the policy at Tuesday’s trustees meeting, scheduled for 5 p.m. in the school’s Building A. The full text of the draft policy is available on the afscwm.org.

On Friday, William Newman, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts western regional office, also sent a letter to the school’s trustees, citing “deep concerns” that the draft policy titled “Teaching About Controversial Issues/Controversial Speakers” violates constitutional protections against “viewpoint-based discrimination.”

“My understanding is that the purpose of this prohibition is to prevent the Western Massachusetts American Friends Service Committee” from coming to the vocational school campus, Newman wrote. “It is my understanding that the present administration disapproves of the message of the AFSC, and so has drafted this policy for the purpose of excluding that group.”

Jeffrey Peterson, superintendent of Smith Vocational, did not respond Monday to repeated phone calls and an email from the Gazette requesting comment on the proposed policy.

Members of the school’s board of trustees deny that the proposal is aimed specifically at the Friends Services Committee.

“We have requests from groups of all shapes and sizes to come here and we can’t let them all in,” said John Cotton, chairman of the vocational school’s board. “Our point is education, not politics.”

He said the draft policy is being reviewed by the school’s legal counsel and is not even on the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting.

“We want to be sure it’s doable,” Cotton said.

Incident in spring

Napolitano said the dispute with the vocational school dates back to last spring, when members of his organization were told after a lunchtime tabling event that Peterson no longer wanted them at Smith Vocational.

He said that although the AFSC was told the superintendent had banned all outside groups from campus until a new policy could be written, a review of the school’s visiting logs showed military recruiters had visited Smith Vocational after the peace group was asked to leave.

Napolitano said Peterson has not responded to phone calls, letters or Napolitano’s appearance at a trustees meeting over the summer when he voiced concerns about the proposed policy on controversial issues.

Those concerns involve more than the treatment of his own organization, Napolitano said. “The policy never defines what a controversial topic is,” he said. “That goes way beyond the AFSC.”

Newman agrees. “I’m very concerned about the bigger policy issue,” he said. “You can’t just have students and teachers guessing about what’s controversial.”