SAN FRANCISCO — Last summer Mark Spencer's 17-year-old son received a phone call from a military recruiter. Mr. Spencer told the recruiter not to call his son again. An hour later, the recruiter called their Mesquite, Texas, residence a second time. The next week he left phone messages.
"It's a predatory practice," says Spencer, "to keep calling students even if their parents object."
Predatory practice or civic responsibility? The government, parents, and some school districts disagree.
"It's a George W. Bush thing," says Santa Cruz, Calif., school board commissioner Cece Pinheiro, referring to the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind federal education act, which became law in 2001. "We've been fighting this for some time."
Deep in the education law's 670 pages lies a provision that requires public secondary schools to give military recruiters the names, addresses, and phone numbers of their students (mainly high school juniors and seniors). Some school districts responded to the new law by designing consent forms. Unless parents signed them, information about their children was not sent to the recruiters.
This summer, however, over 20 California school districts - including those in San Francisco, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, and Santa Cruz - were warned that such consent forms did not comply with the law.
The problem: These consent forms automatically withheld student information from military recruiters unless parents stated that their child's information should be released. School officials refer to it as an "opt in" form because it contains only a "Yes" box to mark. There isn't a need for a "No" box because an unreturned form means a "No" decision, they say.
Jill Wynns, a commissioner on San Francisco's decidedly antiwar school board, says fewer than 80 out of nearly 19,000 district high school students returned the forms the previous school year.
The procedure didn't satisfy the US Department of Defense.
On July 2, it issued a joint letter with the Department of Education that read, "Contrary to an 'opt-in' process, the referenced law requires an 'opt out' notification process, whereby parents are notified and have an opportunity to request the information not be disclosed." In other words, an unreturned or missing consent form should indicate that a parent wanted his or her child's information given to military recruiters, and not the other way around.
Since parents and students often don't return school forms in a timely manner, "that's what the issue is really about," says Josh Sonnenfeld, student organizer of the current "opt out" campaign in Santa Cruz.
Sonnenfeld, who's trying to get all parents and students to send back their forms by the district's Dec. 19 deadline, says the military relies on the default procedure to increase its access to more student names.
Rather than risk losing federal funding for noncompliance (San Francisco, for instance, could lose $36 million), school districts are changing their consent forms to meet the government's demands.
But some dissenting school districts are protesting even as they comply, inviting antiwar groups to speak at their campuses. School officials in Eugene, Ore., have put a disclaimer on their consent forms that reads, "[We] do not support or endorse the Federal Law requiring information to be provided to military recruiters, but will comply with Federal Law."
San Francisco's response to the law, however, has now raised another issue. Back in November, when the city's school board approved a new consent form, school officials allowed students to complete and sign their forms in their own homerooms as a way to ensure that every form got returned. Parents eventually received their own consent forms through the mail - but, according to district procedures, if the parents' and child's responses on the consent forms differed from one another, any "No" response would override a "Yes" response.
In other words, a student's decision could override his or her parent's.
"We actually haven't come up against that scenario," says Ms. Wynns, who insists that the federal government's preference for an "opt out" notification process would logically place a greater value on any "No" answer.
Maj. Sandy Burr, press operations officer for the Office of the Secretary of Defense, criticizes San Francisco's student-signed forms. "The school district shouldn't be doing that, because it's not what the law says," says Burr. "The law states that parents be made aware of the 'opt out' opportunity."
Major Burr refers to a notice issued by her office stating that, under the 1974 Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, student information would be available "unless parents have advised the [local educational authority] they do not want their student's information disclosed."
Wynns disagrees. "Our forms] are specific to No Child Left Behind, which says that the parent or the child can opt out. Nothing in the compliance letter we received said anything about the students not being able to opt out themselves."
So far, San Francisco's school district, which will start counting its returned consent forms this week, hasn't received any new warning letters.
Spencer has since hand delivered his consent forms to his school district in Texas to get both of his sons off the military's recruiting list.
He says he would have rather not gone to the trouble, but plans to remain vigilant. "It's up to parents to tell the schools that, where military recruitment is concerned, they'd prefer their children be left behind."