No Child Left Un-recruited
The U.S. Army isn't exactly recruiting me and I wouldn't say that I spend time thinking of ways to avoid their courtship (despite the fact that we all know they're in dire need of a female soldier who can't even reach plates off the top shelf in her kitchen). But as I searched through the small stack of papers that arrived in the mail a few weeks before the start of my senior year at Shaker Heights High School (outside of Cleveland, Ohio), I recognized that I was witnessing something fishier than the outcome of the 2000 election.
It was a form addressed to students and their families that caught my eye, and being the investigative journalist that I am, I quickly realized the form gave me the option of prohibiting the government from obtaining my personal information through the school in accordance with a provision of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001.
Stuck inconspicuously at the end of the 670-page bill near "Physical Education Program Authorization," section 9528 -- "Armed Forces Recruiter Access to Students and Student Recruiting Information" - -outlines a new form of military access to student information that makes the bill seem more like No Child Left Un-recruited.
Commonly known as the "Opt-Out Provision," section 9528 requires schools receiving federal funding to share all students' names, telephone numbers and addresses upon military request unless students opt-out by making a written request that their information be kept from military databases. The government's justification lies in the fact that the military has just as much of a legal right to access students' "directory information" as prospective employers and college administration offices.
Needless to say, I was more shocked than Bush at an uncensored press conference. Although I've always felt the effects of NCLB on a student's education have been about as productive as our search for Osama bin Laden, this was the first time that my personal life was directly influenced by the government's legislation. My fellow students and I have all been through the agony of waking up early for the endless barrage of required state testing and witnessed the stress it puts on our administrations, but penciling in bubbles for four hours has never put our homes, our identities, our privacy on the frontlines.
According to the Resource Center for Nonviolence, schools are handling the requirement in a variety of ways, which is why the database is collecting information faster than an undercover Times reporter. My own school, being a beacon of liberal-minded folk (you'd never know we're in Ohio), provides a form sent directly to families allowing them to make the written request. But opting-out of the data exchange automatically excludes students from having their information published in the school's Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) directory.
For me, choosing whether I should opt-out was a slightly bigger dilemma than deciding between honors or Advanced Placement Calculus. There was no question I did not want to release my information to the military, but I was forced to weigh my choices. I could either free my identity into the battle ground of military recruitment tactics so that my personal information would be listed by the PTO for friends and co-workers to use when needed, or I could lock my information inside the barracks of personal privacy. One option meant that anyone in the government could reach me through a quick search in their extensive databases, the other that my phone would sit idly for the next year. (As the editor in chief of my high school newspaper and an active member or leader of numerous other activities, students and teachers need to reach me on a daily basis.)
Shaker schools district Director of Communications Peggy Caldwell, believes the administration felt students opting-out of the national database would have to also opt-out of the school directory in order to comply with the act's requirement of equal access for military recruiters and college admissions committees. "The Feds have put schools in a difficult position with this provision of NCLB. The law and procedures in this area are murky, and there are potential conflicts between NCLB, privacy laws and open records laws," she said, noting that the school is revisiting their policy before the 2006-2007 school year. "We want to honor the wishes of our students and their parents, but we also want to comply with the law and make sure students and parents are aware of the ramifications."
The conflicts stem from the basic vagueness of the legislation; the outlined system contains no defined process or procedure for opting-out -- for parents or for schools -- and many districts simply hand over information faster than Lewis Libby under interrogation, often without notifying students. And because schools have as much freedom of execution as judges in Texas, each district's methods are inconsistent. Some schools simply ignore the options and fail to inform community members about their alternatives, while others conceal the forms in rarely-read handbooks and registration paperwork. Many schools, like Shaker, force students to opt-out of other programs such as honor roll (and then what kind of bumper stickers would we proud Americans display?), playbills, athlete lists and yearbooks.
Speculation surrounding section 9528 is as varied as it is controversial. Some organizations, like Democracy Now, target falling numbers of volunteers for the military as cause for the provision. According to their website, for the first time in ten years the Army and Marines missed their recruiting targets for two consecutive months. An article by Gerry Gilmore of the American Forces Press Service announced that the Army was around 6,600 below its active duty recruitment goal of 80,000 new recruits for 2005. Deciphering the true reasoning behind the act, however, will not stop the military from accumulating thousands of students' information in their database.
Instating an "opt-in" policy that requires written consent from parents or students before information is sent to the military is one possibility for protecting students' privacy. Establishing an opt-in policy may be difficult, but it is truly the only way to prevent students and families from unknowingly releasing their private information to the military, and although it will not put a stop to the various ways that the government gets a hold of students' information (such as the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, a standardized test given to 2/3rds of elementary school students), it will undoubtedly make a difference in this ongoing battle between privacy and political power.
Rick Jahnkow, the program coordinator of the Project on Youth and Non-Military Opportunities, suggests an opt-in policy to alleviate unwanted attention for students who are unwillingly added to the military database. "There would still be other ways for the military to get its message to students," he said in an e-mail interview, "but uninterested students would be spared some of the high pressure sales tactics they experience when recruiters have their individual contact information."
Currently the Student Privacy Protection Act of 2005, which would amend section 9528 to impose an opt-out policy, is circulating in the House. Congressman Sam Farr of California supports the bill that was created by fellow Representative Mike Honda because he recognizes that many families do not know they have the option of restricting military access. "I believe that our public school system should be used to teach and challenge our students, not to invade their privacy by releasing personal information without the express approval of student or parent," he said. Our wait for the national government to pass opt-in legislation, however, may drag on longer than the Iraq war. In contrast, proposing minor reforms to local school organizations will work faster than lobbyist Jack Abramoff at a White House holiday party.
The American Friends Service Committee suggests pushing for school policies that will "help protect both the school and the student from any improper release of the information." Community pressure will encourage school boards to create local policies that may eventually translate to statewide action. Ideally, schools should make the opt-out forms available and noticeable during school registration in addition to clarifying that students of any age can make their own choice.
Making opting-in or opting-out a required decision before any information is released is the easiest and most balanced option. "The law requires schools to respect such a choice but not facilitate it," the AFSC's website reasons, noting that allowing students the choice to opt-out from the military only would not violate the requirement to allow equal access to all non-school institutions.
But convincing local districts to employ reasonable policies is a war in and of itself. Arlene Inouye of MilitaryFreeSchools.org has worked to combat the opt-out legislation as a part of a broader issue of unfair military recruitment tactics. In June 2003, Inouye went to her local Board of Education after feeling that inaccessible information caused the minimal returns of opt-out forms (only 13 percent of the district's 63,000 juniors and seniors submitted the page). Her group started "Operation Opt Out," which mobilized community members to attract attention to the issue. "The students, teachers, parents got out the opt-out info in many creative ways including tabling, leafleting, doing a school news TV production, making large banners and hanging [them] in schools . . . requesting to speak to all the eleventh and twelfth grade students, [making] classroom presentations about it [and] asking the principal to make a P.A. announcement," said Inoyue, who emphasized that other programs such as Junior ROTC and the Pentagon database collection were equally if not more disturbing methods the government uses to gather students' information. "From what I've experienced . . . I don't think legislators understand the issues enough to really address it comprehensively. I think that it is the people's movement that can have the most impact."
The bottom line is that it doesn't matter if you support the military or not because whether we're war-mongers or '60s love children living in the wrong decade, we should never feel coerced into reporting our information to the army. I would say (in the spirit of our President) that you are either with the military database or you are against it, but change can and must come faster than the next presidential election. Go, now, and be all that you can be.