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Schools shouldn't be coerced to give recruiters student data

Welcome on board, Congressman.

Did you know that the No Child Left Behind law requires your high school to divulge your child's personal information to military recruiters at the risk of losing scarce federal education money?

I didn't. At least not until my constituents brought it to my attention with complaints that, in some instances, their children were persistently contacted at home by military recruiters. Parents in my district wanted to know how the military got their personal, confidential information, including home phone numbers and addresses.

Under federal law -- as codified in the No Child Left Behind Act -- high schools must provide military recruiters with the names, addresses and phone numbers of all students. Schools that refuse to provide the military with this confidential information face the loss of federal funding -- a difficult choice in this age of swelling costs and dwindling revenue.

My children graduated from high school many years ago, but these reports from my constituents affect me personally. The decision to join the military is a solemn one. Ideally, this decision should be made in consultation with people who love and care for the child and not solely with a person, however well-intentioned, whose very job is to recruit for the military.

As a policy-maker and former high school teacher and principal, I am concerned with parents' responsibility to know who contacts their children and the privacy rights of the students involved. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis defined privacy as ``the right to be left alone.'' Not only were these families not left alone, but their personal, private information was also divulged without their knowledge.

Under current law, the burden is placed on parents to act by taking the step of signing an ``opt out'' waiver and notifying the military that they do not want their children's private information disseminated. Only then will their children's privacy be protected.

This is exactly backward. Rather, parents and their children should automatically receive privacy protection for students' confidential information, and recruiters should have to wait for explicit consent before they have access to these records.

To restore both parental prerogative and privacy rights back to parents and students, I have introduced legislation -- HR 551, the ``Student Privacy Protection Act.'' Under my bill, parents can ``opt in'' to a system that makes their children's private information available to recruiters. Only with their parents' express consent would schools have the authority to share students' private records.

Many parents in my district agree with me, as do many organizations across the country who have been working to publicize information about opt-in rights. Last month, the National PTA endorsed the bill, stating that ``the right to disclose personal information of minors should remain solely with their parents.''

HR 551 is important for a number of reasons. Most parents are unaware of the opt-out requirement. Among the daily deluge of mailings and many responsibilities of tending to school-age children, an obscure administrative form like an opt-out card is easy to overlook -- assuming the school even sends it to parents. Moreover, cultural obstacles faced by many Hispanics and Asian-Americans -- of the high school demographic most aggressively targeted by military recruiters -- preclude many parents from understanding or knowing about the current law's opt-out requirement. Most immigrant communities are inclined to keep a low profile regarding such public issues, and must overcome language barriers to get involved.

Our nation has the best-trained and most powerful armed forces in the world, and maintaining our military superiority depends on effective recruiting. This country also has a proud history of personal rights and privacy protection. I believe we can sustain one without infringing on the other.

As they were in my teaching days, military recruiters should be welcome on campus, and we should appreciate their efforts to educate young people about career options in the armed forces. But schools, without express parental consent to distribute that information, should not be forced to make the private records of underage students' part of that effort.

REP. MIKE HONDA, D-Campbell, represents California's 15th District in the U.S. House of Representatives. He wrote this article for the Mercury News.

— Mike Honda
San Jose Mercury News


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