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School officials protest military recruiting policy

Note how Senator Kennedy, unable to admit he made a mistake, rides both sides of the fence.

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- High school officials are being forced to provide thousands of students' names to military recruiters, spurring discontent among school administrators and some parents.

The federal requirement is embedded in the sweeping No Child Left Behind Act, a fact that disturbs many school officials, who say education legislation is no place for military-related provisions. And schools that are perceived as not complying stand the risk of losing some federal funding.

Military officials, though, say they are seeking the same kind of student access granted to private industry.

Across the state, school officials have divulged lists containing the names, addresses and telephone numbers of thousands of students, according to interviews with a number of administrators.

"The reason it was made a requirement was that districts were not openly complying with the [recruiters'] requests," said William D. Travis, Pittsfield school superintendent. "It just seems this level of access was clearly politically motivated, rather than sound educational policy."

"If we don't provide the list, they can take away funding," said William Samaras, headmaster of Lowell High School. "That's dead wrong. That should not be a part of an education plan."

Military recruiters have long been given free access in most schools.

Uniformed soldiers can be seen approaching students in cafeterias and hallways, arranging interviews and follow-up visits in schools across the commonwealth.

Educators widely view military service, and the educational scholarships it can provide, as an important opportunity for some students. Those interviewed said they continue to welcome recruiters into schools, where interested students can approach the soldiers.

But before 2002, when No Child Left Behind was enacted, schools generally resisted providing entire student lists to recruiters, who, under pressure to "make mission," would often ask schools to divulge the information voluntarily. A provision of the legislation changed that, giving recruiters the names of students whose parents didn't "opt out" of the provision by signing a form.

Lt. Col. Joe Richards, a Pentagon spokesman, said the provision gives military recruiters the same access to student information as college and industry recruiters.

"This is a matter of fairness," Richards said. "These recruiters should have the same opportunity as universities and private industry."

But some school administrators said they guard student data from potential employers, noting strict privacy laws.

"There's a number of agencies that would love to get a hold of lists," said Samara, of Lowell. "My job is to protect these kids."

Richards indicated that the federal government, and the military by association, is entitled to student information.

"Private industry doesn't provide hundreds of millions of dollars to the school systems," he said.

If a school refuses to comply with the provision, a senior military official (a colonel or Navy captain) is required to visit the school within 120 days, according to documents provided by the state Department of Education.

If the visit fails to resolve the issue within 60 days, the Department of Defense must report the matter to the governor. If the school continues to withhold the information from at least two military branches for a year, a complaint is sent to Congress.

But federal funds can be withheld prior to that outcome, according to David Thomas, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education. He said some schools have temporarily lost funding, only to have it restored.

"They always come into compliance," Thomas said of the schools.

The provision, he noted, is meant "to provide opportunities for students to get college scholarships." Schools are required to notify parents that they can opt out of the provision. The notice is usually included in an annual handbook.

U.S. Rep. John W. Olver, D-Amherst, who has received about 26 complaints from parents angry over forceful recruiters, said the provision should be changed to assume that students don't want to be recruited.

"Congress should revise this provision of No Child Left Behind so that students and parents have to affirmatively consent, or opt-in, to the release of their contact information," Olver said. "This will protect students' privacy rights."

Olver spokeswoman Nicole Letourneau said some parents didn't know about the provision.

"They're upset recruiters are calling them at home," she said. "Some say the recruiters say they're not taking no for an answer." When a staff member in Massachusetts told them the school had relayed the information to the recruiter, Letourneau said, "the parents generally have been outraged."

Some school administrators also were surprised to learn about the provision. "When I saw it, I was like, 'What!' " said Karla Brooks Baehr, superintendent of the Lowell School District. "It was an effort to sneak something in. It has nothing to do with No Child Left Behind."

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., co-author of No Child Left Behind, continues to support the recruitment provision. In 2001, he fought to include the "opt-out" element.

"The senator supports the military's effective recruitment efforts, but also strongly fought for the provision in No Child Left Behind that ensured the parental option to seek privacy for their children's records," said Kennedy spokeswoman Melissa Wagoner.

It's unclear if the provision has affected recruitment, in Massachusetts or nationwide. With the Iraq war now more than 2 years old, the military has failed to meet recent recruitment quotas and has hiked signing bonuses.

— Evan Lehmann
Berkshire Eagle


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