Texas Youth Fight the War Aimed at Them

News & Politics

A suburban packed full of high school students barreled south toward the Mexican border Tuesday, and while several of the same gaggle of youth had missed classes the week before -- then marching nearly nine miles through the Texas heat from their campus to the state capitol in protest of proposed immigration reforms -- this time around, their absence is excused.

Today, they will present on their dynamic involvement within the so-called "counter-recruitment movement" at the Women and War Conference hosted by South Texas College in McAllen, situated six hours from their home in Austin.

Seldom are teenagers invited to speak at collegiate academic conferences, but the Youth Activists of Austin (YAA!) are growing accustomed to blazing new trails. YAA! -- a citywide coalition of mostly high school-aged social justice enthusiasts -- have drawn broad attention to what they argue are the unacceptable practices of military recruiters within their schools.

Indeed, the pervasive misconduct of military recruiters on a national scale spurred the U.S. Army Recruiting Command to declare a one-day abstention from pursuing enlistments last May, instead allowing them to "refocus on their values."

In January, YAA! unleashed a new campaign to urge the Austin Independent School District (AISD) to follow the lead of other school districts across the country by placing reasonable restrictions on the on-campus activities of military recruiters.

Recently, grassroots campaigns in a number of towns have resulted in policy changes. In Tucson, Ariz., students must initiate interactions with recruiters and not the reverse; in Princeton, N.J., recruiters can only meet with students in the presence of guidance counselors; in Madison, Wis., recruiters are limited to three high school visits a year, and guidance counselors are required to provide information to students on alternatives to military service.

Spurred by these reforms and abuses they had witnessed firsthand, YAA! members drafted a ten-point platform outlining policy changes that they determined fair and necessary to ensuring healthily maintained schools. They began by attending AISD board meetings and relaying their concerns to administrators en masse.

One plank of their proposed platform -- banning military hardware from campuses -- stems from recruiters' attempts to seduce enlistees through the use of spectacular technical equipment, which functions as aggressive advertising for military service and the war rather than examples of technological achievement with academic merit, YAA! argues.

Recently, Travis High School, a predominantly lower-income and nonwhite school located in southern Austin, was visited by one of the Army's Cinema Vans -- a multimillion-dollar 18-wheeler containing highly sophisticated war simulation video games. Educators there informed students that they had to "sign up" for the van to get credit for P.E. class -- a move which put the students' personal information in recruiters' hands, thereby better enabling them to contact these students individually and convince them to enlist.

Other components of YAA!'s proposed platform include: requiring recruiters to check-in at the front office and wear a name tag upon every campus visit, requiring parental consent for administration of the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test, allowing students to "opt-out" of releasing their personal information to recruiters while remaining eligible for contact from universities, and forbidding recruiters from classroom and school assembly presentations unless the content of their speech is directly applicable to class curriculum.

For YAA! member Timothy Bray, a senior at Westlake High School, the latter plank responds to an episode at his school where administrators afforded a military recruiter a gymnasium filled with captive audience members to mark Veterans Day.

But in addition to navigating the traditional channels for institutional change, YAA! also operates on a number of different fronts to raise consciousness about (and to consequently interrupt) recruiters' quest for youthful enlistees.

After recruiters plotted a visit to Austin Community College in December, YAA! members hung a banner from the roof of one of the schools' buildings that read "Homophobic War Recruiters Off ACC!" -- the recruiters relocated to another campus only to be confronted there by dozens of quickly mobilized counter-recruitment activists.

YAA! has elicited media attention for staging "read-in" protests outside of the AISD headquarters. The "Better Well-Read Than Dead" vigils alert passersby to YAA!'s opposition to unduly aggressive campus recruitment while reinforcing the group's top priority -- fair access to education.

Likewise, later this month YAA! will launch the "Enlightenment not Enlistment Program" whereby students may trade in military recruitment literature mailed to their houses at local participating bookstores to receive a 10 percent discount on purchases.

On Saturday, YAA! will reveal their newest tactic to combat those trying to put them in a war zone -- Protest-in-a-can. The ready-to-go kit easily fits in a locker and contains all necessary materials to demonstrate against recruiters' sudden presence on a campus: a banner, tape recorder, chant list, media call list and counter-recruitment literature. The cans will be piloted in two high schools before possibly being amended and reproduced for further use throughout Austin, says LBJ High School freshman Kate Kelly.

Already, YAA! appears to have made real advances in their campaign with AISD. The school district's attorney, Mel Waxler, has disseminated YAA!'s platform to the principals at all of AISD's 12 high schools and will soon make a recommendation of reforms to the board of trustees based on YAA!'s proposal.

Until then, YAA! remains poised to continue countering the government's efforts to shuttle youth abroad for war-making -- whether it takes them to the school district headquarters, their schools' hallways, the city streets or the riverbanks of the Rio Grande.

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