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Cover story

Law opens recruiting access

As of last spring, high schools are required to provide military recruiters with the names, addresses and telephone numbers of all juniors and seniors or face penalties. The law, mandated in an obscure provision of a new federal bill on school reform, marks yet another example of the curious alliance between the departments of education and defense.

Last October, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Education Secretary Rod Paige circulated a letter to educators, explaining the recruiter provision contained within the new education legislation. “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,” Rumsfeld and Paige wrote. “It can be, and should be, a partnership that benefits everyone. … We encourage you to examine the enclosed information carefully and to work closely with military recruiters as they carry out their important public responsibilities.”

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 is a massive federal law that significantly changes the nation’s education system, including how school administrators disseminate student directory information. Once considered off-limits to any outside group, that information must now be turned over, upon request, to military recruiters. The law, affecting 22,000 high schools, also requires that the military have the same access to school campuses that businesses and college recruiters have.

Schools that fail to comply risk losing federal funds. The penalties, determined by the Department of Education, would also apply to private schools receiving federal aid except for those that have a religious objection to military service.

Parents who do not want their child’s name and phone number turned over to military recruiters can sign an opt-out form. But a year into the law, some school districts remain confused over how to clearly communicate that option to parents. The American Civil Liberties Union, a critic of the new law, has proposed that schools provide an opt-in form for parents who wish to have their child receive information from the military.

The military’s new easy access to minors disturbs Ron Madnick, executive director of the ACLU chapter in Worcester, Mass.

“Why are the recruiters going after students this young? When the students turn 18 they have to register with Selective Service anyway and the military can get all their information then. That seems a more appropriate time, if you are going to recruit,” he said.

According to Maj. Brenda Leong, director of Accession Policy for the secretary of defense, the new education law reiterates a national defense law of two years and mandates a form of recruiter access that was already occurring in many high schools. Leong said military recruiters have typically sought to reach high school students through on-campus displays and visits or through “directory access” -- obtaining personal information needed to contact students individually. The latter generated the most resistance from some educators; but even then, only a small number of schools “remained inaccessible to recruiters,” she said.

“For the most part, 90 percent of schools were releasing some sort of information prior to [No Child Left Behind]. It’s not like we used to have five high schools and now we have 20,000. It’s more like we used to have 20,000 and now we have 22,000.” Leong said.

Several years ago, Pentagon reports about denial of access to high schools fueled a Congressional lobbying effort that led to defense legislation, granting military recruiters the right to receive, upon request, a student’s name, address and telephone number. Inserted in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2000, the defense law has been reaffirmed ever since and is now also part of a major bill on education.

Leong said the new law is not necessarily yielding lengthy lists of recruits but it does make recruiters’ lives easier, saves them time and enables them to pursue other methods of recruitment.

-- Claire Schaeffer-Duffy

National Catholic Reporter, March 28, 2003