Law & Courts

Defense Dept. Settles Suit on Student-Recruiting Database

By Catherine Gewertz — January 12, 2007 3 min read
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In response to a lawsuit, the U.S. Department of Defense last week agreed not to collect certain kinds of information about high school students, and to clarify what young people must do to remove their names from the military’s recruitment database.

In a notice published Jan. 9 in the Federal Register, the department outlined procedures that were the key to settling a lawsuit filed against it last April by six New York City high school students. The students argued that their privacy rights were violated because the military had collected more information about them than was permitted by a 1982 federal law and had allowed other agencies and companies to see it.

Military recruitment of high school students has drawn renewed debate and scrutiny amid the war in Iraq and because of a provision in the federal No Child Left Behind Act that threatens schools with loss of federal funding if they do not give the military access to students.

The Defense Department said in the notice last week that it will not collect the Social Security numbers of students under 18, that it will destroy the information it has about students after three years, and that it will not share information with most other government agencies.

It did not agree, as the lawsuit had asked, to refrain from collecting and using gender, racial, and ethnic data about students. It also reserves the right to share information with several other government agencies for specific purposes.

The Federal Register notice includes instructions on how a student should notify the department in writing to request that his or her name be excluded from the recruitment database.

Liberties Group Pleased

The New York Civil Liberties Union, which filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Manhattan on behalf of the New York City students, hailed the settlement as an important step in ensuring that the military respects students’ privacy.

“We’re delighted to have gotten the Department of Defense to agree they must obey the law, but we are mindful that overly aggressive recruiting will continue,” Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the NYCLU, said in an interview.

But while the civil liberties group called the newly outlined procedures a major change in the Defense Department’s recruitment database, department officials said they represented no change from current practice.

U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Stewart Upton, a Pentagon spokesman, said the military routinely destroys student data after three years, and does not collect Social Security numbers from students under 18, so it saw no problem with clarifying those ongoing practices in a new federal notice.

“Providing further explanation and clarification was appropriate,” he said.

‘Double Opt-Out’

Maj. Upton said that the department acknowledges that its opt-out procedures were not sufficiently publicized, so it published that information in the Federal Register. But it has no other plans to publicize the information.

Students who filed the suit sought those instructions because, they said, they noticed that even after they had submitted forms at their schools saying they did not want their information shared with anyone else, the military continued to recruit them by phone and e-mail.

Maj. Upton said the military recruits from an additional database, which is built from sources such as motor-vehicle records and commercial mailing lists.

Corey Stoughton, the lead lawyer on the case for the NYCLU, said the lawsuit made it clear that if families want their children’s names withheld from the recruitment database, filling out a form at school is not enough. They must submit a letter to the Defense Department.

“You essentially need to double opt-out,” she said.

Ms. Lieberman of the NYCLU said student information gets into the military’s database in many ways, including when students check a box on College Board forms saying they are interested in scholarships, or when they take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, a test often given by school career or guidance counselors.

James Martinez, a spokesman for the National PTA, based in Chicago, said his organization believes parents should not have to opt out of having their children’s information shared outside school.

“It would be better to use an opt-in approach,” he said.

Maj. Upton said the military has and continues to abide by laws authorizing it to undertake aggressive marketing and recruitment efforts to ensure that young people “are aware of the opportunity to serve in today’s military.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 17, 2007 edition of Education Week as Defense Dept. Settles Suit on Student-Recruiting Database

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