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Military Recruiting Law Puts Burden on Parents

by Elaine Rivera, Washington Post, 24 November 2002


Christopher Schmitt is careful to protect his son from companies that want to give the teenager credit cards or sell him sneakers. So at this year's parents night at his son's Fairfax County high school, Schmitt was dismayed to see a new form in the usual stack of permission slips and reminders.

This one invited him to sign if he wanted his son's name, address and telephone number withheld from the Pentagon. Otherwise, the information would be included in a directory of the school's juniors and seniors that will be given upon request to military recruiters.

Schmitt signed the form -- quickly.

"Most people probably missed [the form], and it'll probably be too late," Schmitt said. "There is a commodity with your consumer history. With the military, the commodity happens to be your children's information. . . . Once there's a point of entry, you don't know where the information is going to go."

High schools across the nation must provide the directory -- what one school official called "a gold mine of a list" -- under a sleeper provision in the new No Child Left Behind Act, which was enacted this year. Military officials pushed for it to counter a steady decline in the number of people who inquire about enlisting.

Many schools already allow military recruiters on campus, sponsor ROTC programs or provide student information to the Pentagon if parents give permission. But many school officials say the mandatory provision -- which puts the burden on parents to opt out rather than in -- has them in an uncomfortable position.

Part of their role as educators, they say, is to minimize intrusions so students can learn. Now, they risk losing federal funds if they don't hand over students' names to recruiters who, in the words of Chantilly High School Principal Tammy Turner, "want to capitalize on our captive audience."

Michael Carr, spokesman for the 38,000-member National Association of Secondary School Principals, said: "Student privacy is a big, big issue with schools. There are a lot of people trying to get identities of students -- to get to that market."

There has been no uprising against the provision. Many parents and teachers see the armed forces as a possible career path and say that recruiters should have a chance to make their pitch.

"There are great opportunities for these kids in the military," said Donna Geren, a retired Navy commander whose son, Kyle, is a senior at West Potomac High School in Fairfax. "A lot of times, kids don't find out about the scholarships they offer if schools are not allowed to share this information. I don't see any downside to this."

Fairfax School Superintendent Daniel A. Domenech said that few parents have returned opt-out forms, but he thinks it may reflect a lack of attention rather than lack of opposition. "It makes me believe parents basically glossed over it," he said. "I'm sure I'll start getting calls from parents when they hear from the recruiters."

Although the number of military enlistees has remained fairly constant, the pool of prospective recruits continues to shrink, according to William Carr, director of military personnel policy for the Defense Department.

More students are going to college, and in the 1990s, the tech boom created plenty of jobs, so the military was no longer the employer of last resort. Even students who express an interest say their parents don't approve, especially as talk of war with Iraq escalates.

In the past decade, the number of high school graduates who said they intended to join the military dropped from 32 percent to 25 percent, Carr said. At the same time, one-third of the nation's 22,000 high schools refused recruiters' requests for students' names or access to campus, and the cost of recruiting one person rose from $6,000 to $12,000.

After the military took its complaints to Congress, Rep. David Vitter (R-La.) sponsored an amendment to the No Child Left Behind Act, a sweeping federal measure passed last year that makes schools accountable for student achievement. Vitter said that military recruiters, who offer scholarships and jobs, deserved to be on par with college recruiters.

The student directories will be used to contact students by phone and mail, William Carr said. The recruitment effort should not be compared to telemarketing in any way, he said, and it would be illegal to use the data for any purpose other than recruiting.

"You cannot equate military readiness to a free baseball cap," Carr said. "There's a considerable difference."

The provision isn't a perfect solution for recruiters, said Charles Moskos, a professor and military recruiting expert at Northwestern University, but it is more realistic than trying to persuade Jenna Bush -- or, better yet, rap star Eminem -- to join the Marines.

"That would change people's minds," said Moskos, who was in the Army in 1958 when photographs of a newly drafted Elvis Presley in uniform gave the military a Cold War boost. When he asks recruiters whether they would rather have their advertising budget tripled or see Chelsea Clinton enlist, he said, "they unanimously choose the Chelsea option."

The directory, Moskos said, is partly aimed at improving the quality of enlistees, seeking to attract students who stay in school and have other career options. But he isn't sure it will work. "I don't think the prime market is high school anymore," Moskos said. "My research says the most effective recruiter is a friend or family member who made it a career."

Rick Jahnkow, program director for the California-based Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft, said the measure misplaces the responsibility. Recruiters "had a lot of pressure to meet their quotas, so they decided to pass the buck to schools," he said. "Now it's a huge hammer over the heads of schools, parents and students who will have their privacy invaded."

Part of the burden is turning out to be administrative. Shannon Tully, director of student services at South Lakes High School in Fairfax, said a recruiter came to ask for a computer disk with the names on it before she had time to prepare it. "We told him we didn't have it, and a week later we get an e-mail saying we were a non-cooperating school.

"They didn't even let us know" he was coming, Tully said. "What are we supposed to be -- a fast-food restaurant?"

William Carr, of the Defense Department, said he was unaware of that incident and could not comment on it.

John Porter, principal of T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, said he doesn't see any problems with the law. In the past, the school gave the Pentagon the names of students whose parents opted in, and now it will reverse the process.

"I see it as one of many opportunities for kids to consider post-graduation," said Porter, who opposes directories being released to any other group. "It's a good career choice for some people."

Arlington's assistant superintendent, Alvin Crawley, said that until now, the district has refused to release student directories to anyone, including military recruiters. This year, opt-out forms were sent to all 2,500 of the county's juniors and seniors, he said, and 130 were returned. So far, he said, recruiters have requested the student directory for only one of the district's three high schools, Yorktown.

Jack Parker, principal of Potomac High School in Prince William County, said his school already was in the habit of giving names to military recruiters and letting them recruit on campus during lunch periods.

"They are not trying to solicit anything," Parker said. "And if a student doesn't want to be called, we strike them off the list."

Christine Boehm, 17, who attends Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, is less concerned about privacy than about the expense of the unsolicited mailing she received from recruiters. "It's a waste of government money," she said. "I'm not planning on going into the military."

Kyle Geren, 17, said he has already been contacted by a military recruiter at home -- and went to visit him. "I think it's a good idea the recruitment office knows how to get hold of students before they leave school," Geren said. "I'm keeping it open as an option."

Copyright © 2002 Washington Post Company
Reprinted for Fair Use Only.

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