The Prince George's County school system has not ordered all of its Junior ROTC students to refrain from wearing their military uniforms to class. The decision to keep students out of uniform was made by individual ROTC instructors at some high schools based on information they received from the Air Force and Navy. Superintendent John A. Murphy is encouraging ROTC teachers to allow cadets to wear uniforms as usual, his spokesman said. (RP 1/29/91)

School officials in Prince George's County and the District of Columbia, seeking to avoid potential conflicts over the Persian Gulf War, have told students enrolled in high school ROTC programs to stop wearing their uniforms to class.

The decision to suspend mandatory "uniform days" for more than 2,000 Junior ROTC cadets in the two jurisdictions was made after the Air Force and Navy authorized the practice to reduce school tensions in the event of war, according to local instructors and administrators.

"The Air Force and Navy have just said cool it down and keep a low profile," said Eleanor C. Rotter, who supervises the 15 Junior ROTC programs in Prince George's. "We have kids who are still wearing them {to special events}, but not as frequently."

According to several ROTC instructors, the policy change did not grow out of a fear that students in uniform might be a target for terrorists. Rather, it reflected a concern that at a time when emotions about the military conflict are running high, the young cadets could run afoul of anti-war demonstrators.

"There was no reason to do it except as a precaution . . . . We have some kids in school who might try to take advantage of the situation because they are against the war," said Air Force Col. Louis Ferguson, who commands the 348-member Junior ROTC program at Oxon Hill High School in Prince George's.

Oxon Hill's cadets wore civilian clothes on their regular uniform day last Thursday and will do so again today, Ferguson said. He added that he would reevaluate the mood at Oxon Hill next week before deciding whether to reinstate the uniforms.

The Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps is designed to teach high school students elementary military skills, leadership and citizenship.

Navy Lt. James Shelton, who heads the ROTC program at Northwestern High School in Prince George's, said he, too, told his 115 students to leave their uniforms at home today because one or two cadets were orally harassed during a small demonstration at the school last Thursday, the morning after the war began.

No violence resulted from the encounter, although heated words were exchanged, he said.

"Why put kids in a situation where they are approached by individuals who don't know very much about the situation over there and might look down on the military as a result," Shelton said. "In any program, you have kids who can handle the diplomacy such a confrontation requires and kids who can't."

Navy and Air Force spokesmen said yesterday that the heads of their ROTC programs issued guidelines before or just after the war started suggesting that military instructors take whatever steps they saw fit to protect their cadets. A uniform ban was mentioned because cadets are required to wear uniforms at least once a week, but a ban was considered optional, said Kay Esty, deputy public affairs officer for Air Force ROTC.

Although the Army has not issued similar guidelines, Army Col. Raymond Smith, who supervises the District's 14 high school ROTC programs, said he extended the policy systemwide -- the District has 12 Army ROTC units -- after consulting with the superintendent.

"It was for the safety of the students, to avoid a harassment kind of thing, verbal assaults, while they were on their way to and from school," Smith said. He added that students "were not happy" about the policy because they take pride in their uniforms and that it would probably be rescinded next week.

Arlington and Montgomery County ROTC instructors contacted yesterday said they were unaware of the Air Force and Navy advisories and would consider them, but added that they saw no need to revise their uniform policies.