Covertly Recruiting Kids

A week before school started this year, I noticed a small advertisement in my local newspaper. It was from my school district, and buried in the ad's fine print was an announcement that the local high school would be sending the names and phone numbers for all juniors and seniors to U.S. military recruiters.

This is more than a back-door assault on student privacy. It may have life-or-death consequences for unwitting kids who are contacted by recruiters.

This student information give-away was mandated in a little-known provision of the No Child Left Behind Act, President Bush's sweeping education law. The law went into effect in 2002, but many schools only became aware of the obscure military recruiting provision in the last year. Schools risk losing all federal aid if they fail to provide military recruiters full access to their students; the aid is contingent on complying with federal law.

This recruiting access provision is different from draft registration. Military conscription ended in 1973, but starting in 1980, 18-year-old males have been required to register for possible military call-up.

What does military recruiting have to do with education? Nothing. But it has everything to do with eliminating a community's ability to decide how it guards student privacy.

The military recruiting requirement has forced many schools to overturn longstanding policies on protecting student records from prying eyes. My local high school, like most in the country, carefully guards its student directory information from the countless organizations, businesses and special-interest groups that are itching to tempt impressionable teens.

I asked other parents; none had noticed my school's ad, which is just what the Bush administration wants. This provision relies on stealth. If students and parents are alerted that military recruiters will come knocking, they might be tempted to take advantage of the law's opt-out clause: Parents can notify the school in writing to withhold their child's name from recruiters.

Schools are given wide leeway in how they inform parents and students about this provision. In Bennington, Vt., the high school principal sent home a letter explaining the new military recruitment provision and included a simple opt-out check-off for parents and students to sign and return. The result: One-sixth of the student body opted out.

A school in Fairport, N.Y., near Rochester, offered families two choices: They could opt to allow the recruiters access or opt out. The result was that out of 1,200 juniors and seniors, only 43 families chose to let their names go to recruiters.

My local school is keeping relatively mum about all this, which is legal but dishonest: Few parents will notice their rights in the fine print and understand what is at stake, so few students will opt out.

You might assume that this blatant effort by recruiters to sidestep parents and overrule communities arose because the military is having trouble recruiting. The opposite is true: All branches of the military have exceeded their recruitment goals for the last three years.

I found out the real reason for this backdoor recruiting campaign when I spoke with its sponsor, Rep. David Vitter, R-La. He told me last year that he simply objected to high schools being able to deny a recruiter access to its students. In 1999, recruiters were denied access to schools on 19,228 occasions. Reasons for denial could range from school district policy or just because it might be a school test day.

To Mr. Vitter, there are no good excuses for limiting how the military can reach your child. The access denials "demonstrated an anti-military attitude that I thought was offensive," he told me.

This law really isn't about recruiting. It's about stamping out political dissent and local control. So when the school districts in San Francisco and Portland, Oregon deny access to any organization that discriminates against gays and lesbians, as does the military, such local sentiment is now overruled.

The new law will also make it more difficult for schools to set restrictions on who can and cannot have access to students. "I don't want student directories sent to Verizon either just because they claim that all kids need a cell phone to be safe," says Bruce Hunter, chief lobbyist for the American Association of School Administrators.

And don't depend on recruiters to go away just because you tell them to. As I was told by Maj. Johannes Paraan, formerly the head U.S. Army recruiter for Vermont and northeastern New York, "The only thing that will get us to stop contacting the family is if they call their congressman. Or maybe if the kid died, we'll take them off our list."

Parents and students have the last word -- if they use it. Any student or parent can notify their high school that they want to opt out of having their names made available to the military, but they should act quickly, before schools hand over the information.

The Bush administration claims it wants to leave no child behind. This stealth recruiter law makes clear what they really had in mind.

David Goodman is a journalist and author in Vermont. His latest book is Fault Lines: Journeys Into the New South Africa (University of California Press, 2002).

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