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No-fly zones for military recruiters

By Stacy A. TeicherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 18, 2005

There's one piece of paper that's getting more attention this year as parents sift through back-to-school packets: The opt-out form - a way to keep family contact information off the list that public schools must make available to military recruiters.

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A wide variety of activists - including teens, parents, teachers, lawyers, and clergy - have been mobilizing this summer to draw a clearer line in the sand against the military's access to students:

• Local groups have lobbied school boards to create better forms spelling out families' choices for release of contact information - allowing them, for instance, to give information to colleges but not the military. National PTA, the parent- teacher association, is using its network of 26,000 chapters to spread the word about privacy and opt-out rights.

• In Congress, Rep. Mike Honda (D) of California and more than 50 cosponsors have put forward a bill that would amend the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law to create an opt-in system, so schools would give out contact information only for students who want to hear from recruiters.

• Under the umbrella terms of "truth in recruiting" or "counter-recruiting," community groups have sponsored workshops on everything from the legal details of military contracts to the options for claiming conscientious-objector status. And student activists have been gathering support for their efforts to set up tables in proximity to military recruiters at school to offer alternative information.

Students are indeed leading the charge in some cases, but "unlike Vietnam, I think now much of the push is coming from parents," says Kim Redigan, a teacher in Detroit and a member of Finding Alternatives to Military Enlistment.

"There's really an effort on the part of adults to get the word out to young people that they need to explore carefully what they're told by the military.... It's not to coerce young people to be antiwar, but to help them make well-informed decisions."

It's natural for parents to be concerned about the prospects of their children going off to war, but some observers say counter-recruiters make outrageous claims that unnecessarily stir up fear. One example: the speculation that the gathering of student data - both locally from schools and nationally in a marketing database - could be the first step toward reinstating a draft.

That's simply unfounded, says James Carafano, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. "There is no credible person in the federal government, in the military, or in any academic think tank ... who thinks a draft is practical, makes sense, or is necessary. So it's an irrational fear or intentional fearmongering," he says.

A more immediate point of contention is the degree to which recruiters spell out all the risks and responsibilities when they're making their pitch about educational opportunities and other perks. In school settings, recruiters can capitalize on young people's uncertainties about their future, says Deb Regal, the southeast Michigan coordinator of Military Families Speak Out, one group that participated in a workshop for parents and students this summer. "For some students, enlistment might be a wise choice, but my concern is that ... many of the conversations, the promises made, are not happening when parents or other family members are around," she says.

Ms. Regal's son enlisted in the Marines when he was 21 and is currently in the Middle East. She says he doesn't quibble with what recruiters told him, but he has talked about meeting young enlistees who came in believing that they'd be able to choose their job in the military and where they'd be stationed.

Military recruiters refute the notion that they are misinforming students or leaving parents out of the loop. Eighteen-year-olds can apply to enlist on their own, but anyone under 18 must have parental consent.

"Everything about the enlistment contract has been worked out between them and the Army guidance counselor," says Douglas Smith, spokesman for the US Army Recruiting Command in Fort Knox, Ky. "We work very hard to make sure that the young men or women know exactly what they are enlisting for."

As for access to student contact information, Mr. Smith says, "we realize that not everyone is going to be interested, but we want to at least introduce ourselves to them and start a conversation.... For 32 years we've relied on an all-volunteer force ... [and] a key element in maintaining it is the outreach efforts that we make to high school and college students."

For many schools, this issue is unlikely to surface as a significant controversy. Even before the No Child Left Behind requirement kicked in, 88 percent of high schools were already allowing military recruiters access to student contact information, says Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke, a Department of Defense spokeswoman.