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Military presence unsettles schools

The Student Privacy Protection Act would turn current policy around. But don't hold your breath til it gets passed.

Ann Spanko had no idea that military recruiters visited local high schools until last fall, when she saw an Army recruiting van parked outside Pioneer High School in South San Jose, where her son is a junior.

Under the No Child Left Behind Act approved by Congress in 2001, school districts are required to provide the Pentagon with students' names, addresses and phone numbers so students may be contacted and recruited for military service.

As the war in Iraq enters its third year, recruiting has become a growing issue for principals and school boards across the country. Numerous families support military service, but some parents are clear: They don't want military representatives tracking down their children.

``A lot of mothers say that their sons are immature and very impressionable, and they do not want them contacted by the military,'' said Mike Carr, director of student services for San Jose Unified School District. ``More and more parents are bringing this forth, and I think it's because of the war.''

Parents and legal guardians who do not want student information released to the military can submit ``opt-out'' forms to their school districts. The opt-out forms are often included in large student handbooks distributed at the beginning of the year. But few parents are aware that the forms exist, in part because they are often buried in an avalanche of newsletters, directories and other paperwork.

And some complain that signing the forms has done little to prevent recruiters from contacting their children on campus or speaking in their classrooms.

Spanko, who said she wasn't aware of the opt-out option, wishes San Jose Unified would mail a separate letter about military recruiting so parents can make informed decisions about whether recruiters should have access to their children.

Policy proposal

Rep. Mike Honda, a Democrat whose 15th Congressional district includes western San Jose and central Santa Clara County, wants to take it a step further.

His Student Privacy Protection Act would turn current policy around, allowing the military to talk only to students whose parents approve of such contact. Instead of having the responsibility of opting out, Honda feels that parents should be asked to opt in. Critics charge that this would make it far more difficult for recruiters to discuss military careers with the nation's high school students.

``I'm not against military recruiters on campus,'' said Honda, a former science teacher. ``I'm against the provision of No Child Left Behind that says that schools have to share this private information with recruiters.''

The Pentagon declined to comment on the proposed legislation, which was introduced in February.

Alerting parents

Though the bill faces a battle in the Republican-controlled Congress, some Bay Area Democrats, including Reps. Barbara Lee, Sam Farr, Lynn Woolsey and Pete Stark, have put their weight behind it as co-signers.

``The most important issue is getting the word out to parents,'' said Stark, who represents Fremont and urges parents to download an opt-out form from his congressional Web site. ``Ninety percent of parents would prefer not to have their children's information given away.''

But some parents who made a point of turning in opt-out forms say their privacy concerns are routinely ignored.

Fremont parent Donna Foley, who has two sons at Washington High School in Fremont, signed the opt-out form at the beginning of the school year. But her older son, a senior, has told her that military recruiters have given presentations in three of his classes this year.

``What's the point of an opt-out form if it's not enforced?'' said Foley, who supports Honda's legislation. ``It's a clear violation of my wishes as a parent, and it puts my son in a very awkward situation.''

But the Department of Defense stresses that the opt-out provision refers to the release of students' names, addresses and phone numbers, not to how much time recruiters can spend on campuses.

``The access granted to military recruiters must be the same access that is generally provided to postsecondary educational institutions and/or other prospective employers,'' Pentagon spokeswoman Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke said in an e-mail.

Students speak out

In some cases, students are leading the way to discourage students from joining the military.

In liberal enclaves like Santa Cruz and Berkeley, some high school students have begun to ``counterrecruit'' whenever Army, Air Force, Navy or Marine representatives come to campus.

At Harbor High School in Santa Cruz, recruiters from different branches of the armed services visit the school about once a month, and usually set up information tables during lunch. Several students join the military every year, and a scholarship fund has been established in honor of Andres Peres, a 2001 graduate who was killed while serving with the Marines in Iraq.

But a few weeks ago, when Air Force recruiters came to school, a group of students from a campus Peace and Justice group set up their own table 30 feet away and handed out fliers that said ``Think Before You Enlist.''

``If people really want to join the military, go for it,'' said senior Erin-Kate Escobar, 17. ``We just want people to know that there are other ways to finance a college education.''

Tim McGuire, an assistant principal at Harbor High, said the recruiters have handled the difference of opinion well.

``We have kids that go into the military and kids that don't,'' McGuire said. ``Some join because they can't afford college, and others join because that's what they want to do.''

Others feel that some parents are overreacting.

``Could this get as far as parents who do not want their child to go out of California to bar any contact between the `minors' and colleges that come on campus from Nevada? The East Coast? Kansas?'' asked Leland High School parent Ginger Tate. ``I would think that a parent could talk with their kid and/or with the recruiter about options. It is not that threatening.''
Contact Dana Hull at dhull@mercurynews.com or (408) 920-2706.

— Dana Hull
San Jose Mercury News


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