By DAVID ANDREATTA
April 16, 2007 -- A group of Manhattan public high-school students and a history teacher with a soft spot for Cuba flouted federal travel restrictions by taking a spring-break field trip to the communist nation - and now face up to $65,000 apiece in fines, The Post has learned.
The lesson in socializing and socialism was given to about a dozen students from the selective Beacon School on the Upper West Side, which for years has organized extravagant overseas trips with complementary semester-long classes.
Some past destinations include France, Spain, South Africa, Venezuela, Mexico and, according to the school Web site, Cuba in 2004 and 2005.
The principal, Ruth Lacey, insisted she did not approve the April 1-10 jaunt, in which students and teachers said the group was briefly detained on their return by American customs officials in The Bahamas and now faces fines.
In a telephone interview, Lacey initially claimed to have no knowledge of the trip but later recalled having denied approval for it. She said the teacher, Nathan Turner, then took it upon himself to arrange the excursion.
Turner, 35, a popular teacher whose classroom walls, students said, are adorned with posters of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara, declined to comment.
"I don't know anything about the trip because it wasn't school-sponsored. I only care about the trips that go through the school," Lacey said. "This, to me, would be an outrage if it happened."
But the trip was advertised on the school's Web site in the fall. And a list of 30 students selected in November to take the journey and to attend preparation classes for it could be found on its Web site last week.
It was not clear how many students actually went, though sources said it was about a dozen.
Asked whether the previous trips to Cuba had been approved, Lacey said they had, explaining, "At the time, I think the climate in the country was different."
City Department of Education spokesman David Cantor said the agency denied the school permission to run the trip and that, after The Post's inquiries, had asked city investigators to look into how the excursion and any previous jaunts got off the ground.
"This trip should not have happened," Cantor said.
Some parents of students who made the journey said they knew it was not sanctioned by the school, with some recalling receiving a letter from Beacon describing the excursion as "an independent trip."
The Rev. Earl Kooperkamp, pastor at St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Harlem, said he was unclear on the travel restrictions to Cuba but allowed his son to go because he and his wife felt the experience would be educational.
He added that he was unaware that the students got into hot water at customs but that he was not overly concerned with the consequences.
"It concerns me more that we have a blockade on Cuba that's lasted more than 40 years," Kooperkamp said.
Molly Millerwise, spokeswoman for the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Controls, which enforces economic sanctions and grants licenses for travel to Cuba, would neither confirm nor deny that students and the teacher were detained.
But she said educational travel licenses are granted only to college and graduate-school students who plan trips no shorter than 10 weeks long, and that individuals violating the sanctions face penalties ranging from a warning to $65,000 in fines.
Traveling to Cuba has been difficult for Americans since 1962, but tighter restrictions adopted in 2003 made visits by high-school students with no family on the island near impossible, travel agents say.
"I don't see a legal way for high-school kids to go [to Cuba] right now, given what the restrictions say," said Malia Everette, travel director for Global Exchange, a San Francisco-based company that arranges professional and educational tours to Cuba and worked with Beacon on its Venezuela trip in 2006.
"I'm turning away undergraduates as well as high-school students left and right," she said. "It's not the time or place right now."
Additional reporting by Douglas Montero and Patrick Gallahue