WASHINGTON – A little-known provision in the No Child Left Behind Act (search) that compels public high schools to open their doors and pupil records to military recruiters has some parents, students and anti-war groups up in arms.
"We think most people were unaware of it," Amy Hagopian (search), co-president of the Garfield High School Parent-Teacher-Student Association in Seattle and an active counter-recruiter in the school, said of the provision.
Hagopian said parents are just becoming aware of the policy, which gives recruiters the same access to high school campuses and students' phone numbers and addresses as colleges and businesses have. Districts that don't comply could risk annual federal funding.
According to the law, parents must be notified and can refuse to release their children's information. Every school has adopted different notification policies, some being more effective than others, school officials said.
"Parents are confused — they are not well-informed," said Hagopian, the mother of two teenagers.
Reports say recruitment pressure is translating into inappropriate tactics by recruiters to the extent that the Army halted recruiting for one day in May to refresh staff with proper protocol in dealing with prospective soldiers.
Paul Rieckoff, an Iraq war veteran and founder of Operation Truth, a veterans' advocacy organization, said parents are now reacting to "major recruiting problems" and bad news coming out of Iraq.
"I think it's safe to say there is concern and even the beginning of a movement to combat or to face the recruiters at the high schools," he said. "We don't necessarily endorse that but the critical issue is that the Army has missed their goals again this year."
The military has always had access to schools but not all have opened their doors and records equally. Now, the No Child Left Behind Act emboldens efforts to gain "access to the best and brightest this country has to offer," said Department of Defense spokeswoman Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke.
"For some of our students, this may be the best opportunity they have to get a college education," wrote Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and former Secretary of Education Rod Paige in an October 2002 letter to school superintendents announcing the new law.
"The support by our nation's educational institutions on behalf of the U.S. Armed Forces is critical to the success of the all-volunteer force," they stated.
But some parents and teachers say school is not an appropriate place for the military's message, and complain the hard sell has gotten harder since the Iraq war began and following lackluster recruitment numbers.
"The recruiters really harangue people, and this is what parents are trying to avoid," said Tina Weishaus, president of the Highland Park Middle School/High School Parent Teacher Organization in New Jersey.
She works with the Central Jersey Coalition Against Endless War, which has been encouraging counter-recruitment at high schools there, and is helping to develop better notification for parents who may not know they can refuse access to their child's records.
"Personally, I think the whole thing should be struck from No Child Left Behind," Weishaus said. "I don't think the federal government should be mandating that schools become a recruiting ground for the war."
Army spokesman Doug Smith said the Army has not accelerated recruitment at the schools in the face of missed goals. It is primarily targeting college students, he said, with the average age of 21 for new Army recruits. In 2002, 12,560 out of the 77,000 enlistments were recruited out of high schools.
Other critics say they have no problem with military recruiters, but are concerned about students' privacy.
"Basically, as soon as we found out about it, it sparked a lot of concern," said Liz Lipshultz, 17, who was a freshman when the new law was implemented. She and other students at Montclair High School in New Jersey mounted an aggressive campaign and were able to help pass a school board policy that ensured parents would be made more aware of their options each September.
According to Montclair school officials, more than 80 percent of the parents who responded to that campaign asked that their records not be given to recruiters this year. "It's important to show that obviously, peoples' privacy does matter; people do care about it," Lipshultz said.
Sue Maquire, principal of Mt. Anthony High School in Bennington, Vt., said the new law "was quite controversial when it came out," but parents are pretty much aware now, thanks to letters the school sends home every year. Most of them refuse access to their child's records, she said. But the school remains fair, giving recruiters equal time to make their pitches to students.
"We just try to do it in a fair way, with no push for or against it," said Maquire.
Some say the recruitment issue is not a problem in low-income schools, where the military option is more attractive to high school seniors. Terry D'Italia, spokesman for Hartford Public Schools in Connecticut, said he expects greater resistance in more affluent districts.
"We are a very poor school system and the military is a really nice option for our students, who can not only get skills training but college tuition when they get out," he said, adding that they allow peace groups equal access and notify parents as well. "We have heard little static from it."
Hagopian, who spends a lot of time in Garfield High School's cafeteria, often confronting recruiters, said low-income students have become fertile recruitment fodder for war. "It's really the mission of the PTSA to look out for all of the kids who our in our buildings."
Bill Cala, superintendent of the Fairport Central School District in New York, said his school has been found non-compliant with the law because it doesn't release the names of students to the military unless parents specifically give their consent.
He said about 80 out of the 1,600 students in the school consented this school year, but recruitment among seniors hit 2 percent.
"This really, for us, is a privacy issue and doesn't have anything to do with support for the military or for the war," Cala said.