In his dress-blue U.S. Marine Corps uniform, Sgt. Jose V. Morin cuts an impressive figure striding into the cafeteria at Thomas A. Edison High School here.
Students in shorts and T-shirts linger over lunch and chat about the upcoming summer vacation. For a while, it’s a slow day for the soft-spoken 25-year-old military recruiter. No one comes over to check out the table he has set up with Marine Corps brochures, or to pick up a red sticker reading Semper Fi—short for the Corps’ famous Latin motto meaning “Always Faithful.”
Then Albi Sadikaj, a senior from Albania, approaches. A standout punter on the school’s football team, he believes his SAT scores are too low for a college scholarship, and he considers the prospect of finding a job daunting.
“Have you ever thought about the Marines?” Sgt. Morin asks him. “You’re looking for something to give you that edge?” The recruiter hands him his business card. “Do you have anything going on after school tomorrow? I can pick you up, and we can go down to the office.”
The student agrees to a meeting.
“I have to figure out a way to get a job,” the 19-year-old says on his way back to his lunch table. “This is my last option. … I don’t like the war, but if I have to go, I have to go.”
Scenes like this have been common in high schools nationwide as this year’s graduates mull their plans, and as some branches of the armed forces struggle to attract recruits while the military is spread thin with the insurgency in Iraq and continuing violence in Afghanistan.
While the Army reported last month that it had fallen short of its recruiting goals for the fourth consecutive month, the Marine Corps exceeded its goal in May by signing up 1,904 recruits.
Meanwhile, although the military has historically enjoyed ready access to U.S. high schools, such recruitment appears to be encountering more resistance. The movement is playing out in parent online chat groups, in protests at recruiting stations, and in living rooms around the country.
Supporters of the military’s efforts to reach students at school face vocal critics who argue that young people are being given too rosy a picture of military life during a time of war.
Framing those often heated discussions are provisions in the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 that guarantee military recruiters the same access to high schools as colleges and employers. Under the law, districts must also make available to military recruiters the names, addresses, and phone numbers of students unless parents specifically sign an opt-out form provided at the beginning of the school year.
Lisa Soronen, a staff lawyer with the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va., said that many parents are unaware of the law’s military- recruiting provisions.
Many schools, she added, are not always clear about informing parents of their right to refrain from providing their children’s information.
“These notices come out buried in a stack of information that the parents don’t read,” Ms. Soronen said of the opt-out forms.
Some districts are trying to clarify their rules regarding military recruitment. The 46,000-student Seattle district is gathering information about how its schools deal with recruiters after a parent-teacher-student association at Garfield High School passed a resolution in May stating that military recruiters were not welcome at the school. The district may revise its recruiting policy this summer to ensure a more consistent approach.
In Arizona’s 60,000-student Tucson Unified School District, administrators adopted new rules for military recruiters in April after parents complained that recruiters were spending several days a week in some schools. Now, recruiters can visit a school only once a month and must stay at a designated location.
“We looked at our own policy, and we found we didn’t really have any regulations that dealt with recruiting,” said Ross Sheard, a principal supervisor for the district who helped draft the new rules.
Some parents and peace activists are pushing for schools to allow the posting of alternative information alongside military-recruitment materials. Orlando Terrazas, the father of a student at Whittier High School in Whittier, Calif., said he could not get an answer from the school district when he first sought permission to put up a poster titled “Do You Know Enough to Enlist?” next to military advertisements in his son’s school.
The poster, which is produced by the American Friends Services Committee, a political and social-justice organization affiliated with the Quakers, tells students that the military’s promises of money for college and high-paying career opportunities are often exaggerated. It encourages them to seek out alternatives to the military.
Mr. Terrazas called the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, which wrote to the 14,000-student Whittier Union High School District to urge officials to allow the posters.
The district, which is located just east of Los Angeles and has a high proportion of Latino students, agreed to produce a brochure that would help students evaluate postsecondary options such as the military or college.
“I’m not against the military,” Mr. Terrazas said. “My brother was in Vietnam, and my father was in World War II. My intention is that kids get balanced information about a decision that could cost them their lives.”
A Covert Operation
The Army has come under fire recently for the tactics of some of its recruiters.
Seeing military recruiters frequently at his high school prompted student David McSwane to do some investigative reporting. The 17-year-old senior at Arvada West High School in Arvada, Colo., presented himself as a high school dropout and a drug user when he visited his local Army recruiting office in January.
“I just wanted to see how far they would go to get another soldier,” the recent graduate said in an interview. One recruiter told him a detoxification kit would clear out traces of drugs from his system and drove the student to a “head shop” to buy one. As for a high school diploma, another recruiter suggested shopping online for a fake diploma. The student found one easily, and for about $200 became a “graduate” of a nonexistent high school.
Mr. McSwane also taped more than a dozen phone conversations with the recruiters. In March, he published a story in his school newspaper under the headline “Army Desperation Leads to Recruiting Fraud.” It drew national attention, and the revelation of abuses appeared to be one factor spurring the Army to suspend all recruiting on May 20 for a mandatory training day for its recruiters.
“I wanted to show how desperate we really are for soldiers, and what this means for people my age,” Mr. McSwane said.
Capt. John Norris, who oversees 44 Marine Corps recruiters who visit 170 high schools in northern Virginia, as well as parts of West Virginia and Maryland, acknowledged that it’s a tough sell for recruiters these days.
“It’s challenging, and recruiters have to work very hard to get the parents involved early in the process,” he said. “A lot of times, the kids are ready to do it and the parents put the brakes on.”
While some critics contend the recruiters disproportionately targets schools with high percentages of low-income and minority students, Capt. Norris said Marine recruiters are assigned a designated area with a varied socioeconomic and racial makeup.
“What you have is what you have,” he said. He describes Alexandria, here in Washington’s Virginia suburbs, as a middle- to upper-middle-class area that is one of the Marine Corps’ best recruiting grounds in the country.
“We have kids driving BMWs to the [recruiting] office,” Capt. Norris said. “They are driving better cars than us.”
Edison High here is also close to the Pentagon and a Marine base in Quantico, Va. Many of its students come from families with military connections.
The 1,800-student school has the largest Army Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, or JROTC, of any high school in the 166,000-student Fairfax County school district, with more than 200 students taking part.
For 17-year-old Rammy Barbari, the appeal of patriotic duty is strong. The new high school graduate, who served as a student lieutenant colonel in the JROTC, has been accepted at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Va., and wants to enter the U.S. military when he finishes at VMI.
“It’s honorable service,” he said. “When I’m in uniform, people look at me differently.”
As Sgt. Morin packs up his table in the cafeteria, he wishes more students saw it that way. “You are going to hear noes as a recruiter, but you can’t let that get to you,” he says. “You eventually run into people who are interested. If you get discouraged, you’re not going to make it.”