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    Group Seeks School Access

    Ohanian Comment: Every high school in the land should have these alternative recruiters presenting the facts to young people.

    Brent Curtis

    An activist group that claims to engage in "counter recruitment" to discourage teenagers from joining the military is preparing to sue the Rutland School District to gain access to Rutland High School.

    Members of the group, who call themselves Alternatives to Recruitment in the Military, or ARM, said they have been asking school officials for a year to allow them access to the school so they can hand out literature and answer students' questions.

    "We want kids to know the alternatives, like the peace groups," member Don Gray of Pittsfield said. "The kids only hear from the recruiters if we're not there, and they exaggerate their claims. It's brainwashing by omission."

    Gray and other ARM members showed off the display they bring into schools during one of the group's recent meetings at Unitarian Church in Rutland.

    A table in the meeting hall was stacked with pamphlets and papers with titles such as "The Military's Not Just a Job -- It's Eight Years of Your Life" and "Depleted Uranium: Wonder Weapon or Toxic Hazard?" A poster board on the table was pasted with other information about the draft and how to qualify as a conscientious objector.

    "If schools allow recruiters to talk to students, they need a balance because war and the military are controversial topics," Gray said.

    The group, made up of less than 20 members, visits a number of schools in the southern part of the state, including high schools in Springfield, Bellows Falls, Brattleboro, Townshend, Randolph, Woodstock, Wilmington and Chester, Gray said.

    Rutland High School is the first school in Rutland County the group has focused its efforts on, he said. However, a year after making the initial request, Gray said school officials still haven't told them whether they are welcome.

    He said after a meeting with school officials in July, the group had expected an answer within three weeks. No answer has come, so the group is preparing to picket the school and file a lawsuit in federal court demanding access, Gray said.

    "They think this will all go away if they ignore us, but this is a serious issue," he said.

    School officials said they weren't trying to stonewall the group.

    Rutland High School principal Peter Folaros said his concern wasn't with the anti-recruitment group in particular, but with the possibility of opening the door for a slew of political groups that might seek access if ARM were allowed in.

    "I have no problem with the nature of this group, but what's to stop every other political group out there," he said. "My concern is to do this in a way that doesn't create a political circus. I fully anticipate communicating again with this group. We're not ignoring them."

    Rutland Superintendent Mary Moran said she had the same concerns.

    While the school allows college recruiters, military recruiters and businesses offering job opportunities to enter the school, Moran said she was concerned about exposing students to groups with political interests.

    "The question in my mind is if they're not offering employment or college opportunities, is it an appropriate venue and could other groups come in?" she said. "We need to be careful about giving access to the students. Is it our role to give advocacy groups access to the kids? That's the issue we're wrestling with."

    While Rutland school administrators weigh the issue of access, principals from two of the schools that allow ARM to speak with students said the question troubling Folaros and Moran scarcely crossed their minds.

    John Doty, principal of Bellows Falls Union High School, said ARM started coming to his school two years ago after some of his students requested alternative information about military careers.

    "I said 'Sure, go ahead,'" he said. "If there's free access for the recruiters, this seems like it's just the other side of the equation."

    Like the military recruiters who come to the school, Doty said ARM members never visit more than once a month. Since the group has been coming to the school, he said he hasn't received any requests from other groups that wanted equal time.

    In Chester, Green Mountain High School principal Carol Gilbert said ARM members paid their first visit to the school Wednesday.

    "They asked at the end of the last school year," she said. "It was a decision on the part of the School Board to let them in. They ultimately felt there was no reason to deny them access to the high school."

    Gilbert said she wasn't concerned about other groups forcing their way into the school.

    "I think we would look at each individual situation the same way we did here before letting anybody in," she said.

    From a legal standpoint, Gray and Rutland lawyer Jeffrey Taylor, who is providing free legal services to ARM, said federal court precedent dictates that schools must allow equal access to anti-recruitment groups if they allow military recruiters at their schools.

    "There have been several decisions by federal courts supporting equal time and access for alternative recruitment," Taylor said. "They present additional information so that students can make informed decisions."

    But William Meub, the Rutland School District's lawyer, said Taylor's reading of the law wasn't accurate.

    Meub said the decision the group has cited quotes a federal 9th Circuit Court decision that ruled that newspapers cannot refuse to print advertisements that oppose the draft.

    "That's a whole lot different than letting people into schools," he said. "I think letting them in would open a huge door. If all you need to do is have an organization that has information you want to provide to students, we'd be letting anyone in."

    Contact Brent Curtis at brent.curtis@rutlandherald.com.

    — Brent Curtis
    Rutland Herald
    2004-09-16
    http://www.rutlandherald.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20040916/NEWS/409160405/1002/NEWS01


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