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High schools collide with military over recruiting

GREECE, N.Y. - When Capt. Larry Dibble wanders into Greece Olympia High School, just outside Rochester, he is greeted with smiles and handshakes. Teachers invite him into their classrooms to talk to students about joining the Marine Corps. The school provides an almost-complete list of student names and telephone numbers.

In another suburb, at Fairport High School, Dibble is barred from setting up a recruiting table. Appointments are required to talk to students, and interviews are allowed only in the guidance office. The school will release student contact details only with written parental approval.

The different receptions reflect the twin poles of a nationwide debate about military recruiting in high schools that has heated up with the war in Iraq and the increasing demand for military manpower. As pressure mounts on recruiters to meet their monthly targets, principals across the country are grappling with difficult decisions over how much access to provide the military.

Federal aid could be lost
A little-noticed clause in the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act requires high schools to hand over students' names, addresses and telephone numbers to military recruiters as a condition of receiving federal aid. But some school districts are challenging the military's interpretation of the law, arguing that they are obliged to protect the privacy rights of their students.

"We're not going to give out information about our students unless we absolutely have to," said David Paddock, principal of Fairport High, who placed strict limits on the activities of military recruiters after a verbal confrontation between a Marine sergeant and a student peace activist. He describes the school's policy as "pro-kid, not anti-military."

Developments in Fairport, a school district in an affluent suburb of Rochester, are being closely watched by other school districts unsure about their obligations under the Bush administration's signature education initiative. Some previously recalcitrant districts have begun to provide student information to the military after being threatened with retaliation by the Department of Defense, while others are re-evaluating their access policies after reports of misconduct by military recruiters.

'Unacceptable' practices
In one well-publicized case in Colorado, Army recruiters were tape-recorded encouraging a student journalist posing as a high school dropout to create a diploma from a non-existent school to comply with military enlistment requirements. They also were heard giving him advice on how to disguise a chronic "marijuana problem" and how to pass a mandatory drug test. The head of Army recruiting in Denver, Lt. Col. Jeffrey Brodeur, described the practices as "completely unacceptable."

Fairport High School is in the only school district identified by recruiters as being in "noncompliance" with the information-sharing requirement of No Child Left Behind, Pentagon spokeswoman Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke said. The Defense Department is working with the district to fashion a solution.

The controversy over military recruiting in high schools has spawned half a dozen Web sites calling on families to sign forms asking that student information be withheld. The founder of one such site, rock musician Justin Sane, said that more than 7,000 had signed a petition on militaryfreezone.org to request the withholding of contact information.

Dibble said that manpower demands caused by the Iraq war are forcing recruiters to work "harder and smarter."

The opt-out movement comes when the military is struggling to meet its recruitment targets. The Army Recruiting Command reported at the end of April that it was 16 percent below its year-to-date recruiting target for the active Army and 21 percent below target for the reserves. The Marines slightly exceeded "shipping" targets during the same period but were down 2 percent in signed contracts, which represent a commitment to join the Marines at a future date.

— Michael Dobbs
Washington Post


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