The New York Times
By DAVID M. HERSZENHORN
Published: April 17, 2007
When the city’s Education Department said it would not let students from the Beacon School on the Upper West Side take a spring break trip to Cuba this year, the school turned to a powerful friend for help: Lt. Gov. David A. Paterson, whose stepdaughter went on the trip as a Beacon student in 2005. His call did not make a difference; city officials would not budge.
But the students went anyway, chaperoned by one teacher and two parents. And yesterday, city officials, including Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein and even Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, were left struggling to explain why the trip went forward, and how Beacon students had managed to get to Havana again this year in defiance of the government’s ban on travel to the Communist nation.
Mr. Klein, at a news conference yesterday, said that the trip had not been approved by the Education Department and that the matter was now under investigation. “It should not have happened,” Mr. Klein said. “We expressly said no.”
Officials said yesterday that they had been unaware of the school’s previous trips to Cuba, in 2004 and 2005, prompting questions from Mr. Paterson.
“As a parent,” Mr. Paterson said by telephone, “I was a little concerned that a group of schoolchildren went to Cuba and the Department of Education didn’t know about it.”
He said that the school had clearly approved the trip when his stepdaughter, Ashley Dennis, went and that it had been highly educational.
The controversial trip was first reported yesterday in The New York Post. As in past years, the trip was led by Nathan Turner, a history teacher who accompanied the students along with one set of parents. Ruth Lacey, the principal of Beacon, declined to comment.
This year’s trip included interviews of a 15-year-old prostitute and of a homeless man in Havana, and also a visit to La Zorra y El Cuervo — the Fox and the Crow — an Afro-Cuban jazz club in the Vedado section of Havana, where two of the students jammed with the musicians.
The students and chaperones said that the trip was organized by Pastors for Peace/Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization, a nonprofit group in Manhattan. The federal government permits educational trips to Cuba, but only for college or graduate students, said Molly Millerwise, a spokeswoman for the Treasury Department. Violators can receive a warning letter or a fine of up to $65,000.
Ms. Millerwise declined to comment on the Beacon case.
Mayor Bloomberg, at his daily news conference, said that the ban on travel to Cuba should be obeyed.
“My understanding from what I’ve read and from a couple of conversations I’ve had is that the school did not approve the trip,” he said. “I think we should be a law-abiding society.”
Former Councilwoman Eva S. Moskowitz said she had tried to help parents after rumors that the trip would not be allowed. “I can’t imagine why this is a bad thing,” she said. “I think you would want kids to travel, even to leftist countries, and have them understand their social and economic systems, their human rights violations.”
Mr. Paterson said that it never struck him as odd that his stepdaughter and her classmates were traveling to Cuba, despite the federal travel ban.
“All the elected officials from my neighborhood have taken this trip to Cuba,” he said. “I figured they would be going as part of one of these missions.” He added that his stepdaughter’s trip was educational for him, too. “I probably learned more, hearing about her experiences, then I have been able to read in books or watch in films about the island.”