Stricter Limits Sought on Military's Access to High Schools
Washington -- San Jose Democratic Rep. Mike Honda, citing privacy concerns, has proposed a law that would make it easier for parents to block military recruiters from gaining easy access to high school students on or off campus.
School officials in cities such as San Francisco, which had banned military recruiters from campuses for a decade, say the recruiting issue has become heated as U.S. military casualties mount in Iraq and Afghanistan. Recent Defense Department reports say the military is having a tougher time meeting recruiting goals for the all-volunteer force, increasing the pressure on recruiters -- armed with a $4 billion budget -- to sign up more high school juniors and seniors.
The No Child Left Behind Act approved by Congress in 2001 requires school districts to provide military recruiters with the same access to high schools given to college or job recruiters.
Under the current law, parents must tell school officials they don't want their child contacted by the military, at school or home. Otherwise, schools are required to turn over students' names, addresses and phone numbers to Pentagon recruiters. Honda wants to turn that around, and allow the military to talk only to those students whose parents approve such contact.
"The authority for such contacts should be with the parents, not the schools, the military or the federal government,'' said Honda, a former high school teacher and administrator in Sunnyvale. "I'm not against them recruiting on campus, but they should follow the protocol, and that protocol was changed by Congress.''
Honda's proposal, like almost all bills introduced by members of the House Democratic minority, faces a stiff challenge to even receive a hearing. But he has some support.
In San Francisco, school board President Eric Mar strongly endorsed Honda's proposal and said the district allowed military recruiters into high schools only after the state Department of Education threatened to cut off its federal money if it didn't comply with the new law. School districts in Santa Cruz and Santa Monica received similar warnings.
"It's not like the military heavily targets San Francisco,'' Mar said. "They know we are wary of military recruiters,'' because of widespread anti- war sentiment in the city and because of the military's "don't ask, don't tell'' policy that has led to the dismissal of gays and lesbians from the military.
"We as a school district should have the say not to allow them in at all, '' he contended. "There would be tremendous support in our district for what Mr. Honda is doing.''
But Thomas Donnelly, military analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, said Honda's proposal is "really stupid. It's going nowhere, and even if it did, it would face a tough constitutional challenge.''
"Face it, war is a young person's game,'' said Donnelly, and the Congress has a constitutional responsibility to raise a military and needs access to young people. What's more, he said, federal aid to education gives Washington the power to tell local school districts what they can do, if they want to keep their federal money.
"Given that military service is still something of a civic responsibility, it seems quite reasonable to me that public schools should give the military access,'' he said.
Mar, however, said the school board is under pressure from parents to allow groups to come on campus to counter the message of military recruiters.
"There are a lot of concerns about the privacy of children and their families,'' said Julia Harumi Mass, a staff attorney at the Northern California American Civil Liberties Union.
The ACLU has received complaints from parents, students, teachers and principals about the current policy. It says the law provides that schools have to give the military the same access it provides to other recruiters, such as those from businesses or colleges. But reports from around the country say that at some schools, military recruiters are a fixture, making regular appearances.
"They target low-performing schools. At some schools like that, the military recruiters have more of a relationship with students than the school staff,'' said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.
She also said that for districts such as San Francisco, which bans other groups that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, the federal law forces them to violate their own rules. "Many schools have anti-discrimination policies that would otherwise prohibit the military, and the military is perhaps the single largest violator of such policies,'' she said.
The issue is part of a larger debate over military recruiting that also involves colleges that have denied access to recruiters because of the Pentagon rules about gays and lesbians serving openly. The matter ended up in court, where a federal appeals court overturned a rule co-authored by Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Tracy, requiring colleges to allow military recruiters on campus.
That ruling, in turn, led Congress to pass a nonbinding resolution by a 327-84 vote last month calling on the Justice Department to pursue an appeal.
"It's not a violation of their free speech,'' Pombo said of the colleges that don't want the military on campus. "You can't on the one hand, say we are so upset about these policies we are not going to allow military recruiters on our campus, but then we give them the use of the money anyway."
In the floor debate on the resolution, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R- Texas, said college policies blocking the military "are obnoxious in times of peace, but they are simply intolerable in times of war, and the equal access of our military recruiters to federally funded colleges and universities must be protected.''
E-mail Edward Epstein at email@example.com.
San Francisco Chronicle
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