Law & Courts

Military Recruiters Meet Pockets of Resistance

By Sean Cavanagh — April 23, 2003 9 min read
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From the tranquility of U.S. soil, a generation of American students over the past month absorbed broadcast images of American soldiers churning through the Iraqi countryside in tan armored vehicles and seizing airstrips in nighttime raids.

As that conflict moves into postwar duty in Iraqi cities, the military is aiming to bolster its ranks in the years ahead with the help of a federal provision giving recruiters more power to make their pitch directly to high school students. Not all schools and districts, however, are giving the armed forces the same sort of access.

Tucked into the massive “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 was language requiring any “local education agency” receiving money under the law to provide recruiters with access to students’ names, addresses, and telephone numbers—the same information schools typically give to colleges. Schools and districts that refuse to comply risk losing federal aid.

To date, the vast majority are following the law, federal officials say. But a handful of schools and districts, citing worries about student privacy and overaggressive recruiters, have drawn up their own regulations that appear to undercut the military’s vision of easier access. And the divide over recruiters’ rights underscores the split on some campuses— reflected in protests and demonstrations—over the U.S.-led war with Iraq, according to some students, parents, and school officials.

Law’s Language

The language in the No Child Left Behind law, a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, allows students or their parents to withhold personal information from the military. The law says schools “shall notify parents of the option” to make such a request, which the U.S. Department of Defense has referred to as an “opt out.”

But school districts in San Francisco and Santa Cruz, Calif., have spun that policy in a different direction—by requiring that parents and students “opt in” if they want the personal information released to Uncle Sam’s emissaries. Otherwise, the military won’t get those listings.

San Francisco school board member Jill Wynns said her district’s policy, approved in January, was the board’s response to a mandate that had drawn the scorn of many parents and students there.

“The Congress has required us to do something that the community does not support,” Ms. Wynns said. “I haven’t heard from a single person who has said, ‘How dare you not give the military unfettered access to our [child’s] private information?’ ”

Previously, San Francisco’s 60,000- student district had a long-standing policy barring all on-campus military recruitment from its schools. The policy cited the armed forces’ practice of “blatantly advocat[ing] and discriminat[ing]” against gay and lesbian enlistees, among other factors.

By the beginning of next school year, the district hopes to have a card on file for every student, indicating who may have access to the student’s personal information, Ms. Wynns said.

The district approved the new opt-in policy in a two-page resolution that also said each high school would offer students information about organizations such as those for conscientious objectors and people devoted to reducing the military’s influence in schools. The resolution began with a passage from a song by the singer Curtis Mayfield: “We got to have peace/ To keep the world alive and war to cease,” which continues, “Save the children ... Peace, Peace, Peace!”

Handful of Holdouts

The San Francisco Unified School District’s interpretation of the federal law does not pass muster with U.S. Rep. David Vitter, R-La., who was the author of the recruiters’ provision in the No Child Left Behind Act. The lawmaker said in an interview that he drafted the language after growing frustrated that some high schools were barring armed-forces representatives from recruiting on their grounds, amid what he deemed an atmosphere of “anti-military bias and political correctness.”

Rep. Vitter said policies like San Francisco’s violate the law, and risk putting those districts’ federal funding in jeopardy. The recruiters’ provision was carefully drafted, he said, to give schools and districts the right to protect student privacy.

“We bent over backwards to create an opt-out process,” Rep. Vitter said.

The U.S. Department of Education is studying whether the opt-in policies violate the law, but hasn’t taken a position yet, agency spokesman Jim Bradshaw said. He noted that the department has provided written guidance to schools on how they could devise opt-out forms.

If a school does not comply with the law, Department of Defense officials have outlined a policy in which they will send notification to the governor of the state asking for help in securing access for the military. If the school’s refusal continues for a year, the Pentagon will request support from members of Congress representing the school, defense officials said in a statement.

Military estimates show that a strong majority of the nation’s high schools are granting recruiters access to student records already. Prior to the No Child Left Behind law’s passage, only 12 percent, or 2,500, of the nation’s 21,500 or so high schools were denying the military access to student-directory information, Defense Department officials said in a document explaining their recruitment goals to the media.

By the time the law took effect on July 1 of last year, only 859 high schools were not turning over that data.

Today, the Defense Department is aware of only six high schools that are not providing access to military recruiters, said Maj. Sandy Troeber, a spokeswoman for the agency. She would not identify the schools.

The U.S. government abandoned the military draft in 1973, in an era when opposition to the Vietnam War had made the Selective Service system particularly unpopular. Since then, the armed forces have relied on an all-volunteer force. Each year, the military sets a goal of having 210,000 people join the active-duty military, and another 150,000 join the Reserves or National Guard, according to defense officials. But in recent years, the armed forces have faced new hurdles in meeting their enlistment goals, officials say.

More high school graduates today are heading to college, they say, and as unemployment rates remain relatively low, recruiting has become more difficult. As the size of the military has decreased over time, Defense Department officials say, fewer teachers, counselors, coaches, and parents are likely to have had direct exposure to the military. As a result, the officials say, such adults have fewer reasons to tout the military’s benefits to students.

The cost per recruit, meanwhile, has risen from $6,500 to $11,600 over the past 10 years, according to Pentagon estimates. Having greater access to students would reduce those costs, military officials contend.

The new policy on student data has helped Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Jonathan M. Hooper, who estimates he has been making about 50 more phone calls a month to recruits in the region around Portsmouth, Va., and Chesapeake, Va., since the recruitment provision in No Child Left Behind took effect.

A Few Good Phone Calls

Sgt. Hooper says administrators and staff members already were cooperative at the two high schools and one community college where he recruits. But the law on releasing student data made his access to students’ home phone numbers much faster and more hassle- free.

He supplements those calls with twice-monthly visits to the two high schools, where he typically sets up a table topped with brochures in the cafeteria. There’s written information on educational opportunities, and life in the Marine Corps Reserves. There’s a pamphlet on information for female recruits. The sergeant answers students’ questions, mostly, and he says his goal isn’t to pressure anybody.

“When they walk away, I don’t hound them,” Sgt. Hooper said. "[School staff members] want me to tell [students] about the Marine Corps, without being a distraction.”

One recruit who was swayed by the Corps’ message was Michael J. Barker, 18, a student at Woodrow Wilson High School in Portsmouth. His mother served 20 years in the Navy, with stints at installations as far away as Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and as close as Richmond, Va. The senior, who met Sgt. Hooper at the school and is scheduled to graduate in 2004, said he doesn’t see why turning over home addresses and phone numbers to the military should offend anybody.

“Everybody has those records, and I think the United States should have those records,” said Mr. Barker, who called the armed forces “the backbone of our country.”

Virginia Derr, a spokesman for the Portsmouth public school district, which includes Wilson High, said the system sends a “blanket” notice home with high school students at the beginning of the year, asking them if they want any information in the student directory withheld from all entities. That form does not mention the military specifically, and parents are asked to return the form to the 16,000- student district within 15 days.

In general, Ms. Derr said, district officials believe it is proper to give the military access to student data.

“We want to give as much information as possible to all students, because not everybody goes to college,” she said.

But in school districts like Santa Cruz, the worry is that student-recruits might not be giving the college option enough attention.

Josh Sonnenfeld, a senior at Santa Cruz High School who helped lead a student effort to get the California district’s opt-in policy put in place, said the picture offered by many recruiters was “not the whole truth.” The school board in the 7,700-student district approved the policy on March 26.

Community Support

Too many students consider the military because they wrongly assume college is not a good option for them, said Mr. Sonnenfeld, 17, who plans to attend a four-year institution. And like other critics of the federal mandate on recruiters’ access, he questions why the measure was ever inserted into an education reform law.

Mr. Sonnenfeld, however, dismisses the notion that people opposed to the military-recruitment policy have simply been using the issue as a stalking horse for their opposition to the conflict in Iraq.

“We have people who are against the war, we have people who are for the war who are supporting this [opt-in policy],” the student said. He added: “We don’t feel slipping the notice into a student handbook is appropriate at all. That goes against our moral principles.”

While many of the details of the Santa Cruz district’s opt-in policy have not been made final, school board President Tim Willis said schools would probably have forms sent to students at the beginning of the year, asking them to check a box if they wanted their contact information released to the military.

Santa Cruz, which has three comprehensive high schools with a total of about 4,000 students, receives about $500,000 annually in federal Title I funding, Mr. Willis said. Like other districts around the country, Santa Cruz has seen its budget squeezed by the poor economy, and the potential of losing federal funding is a concern, he acknowledged. Mr. Willis wasn’t sure how the district would respond if that money were withheld.

But response from the community, he said, has been running 4-to-1 in favor of the stand taken by the board. “It’s not anti- military. It’s not a statement on the war in Iraq,” Mr. Willis said. “It’s mostly about protecting the privacy of students.”

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