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Activists target recruiters' efforts in schools

By William Cooper Jr.

WEST PALM BEACH Parents should have an easier time keeping their children's personal information out of the hands of military recruiters as a result of negotiations between peace activists and school officials.

Last school year, many parents did not know how to keep the information confidential, and school district procedures didn't make it easy to find out. That prompted parents who don't want recruiters calling their children to take action, including meeting with school officials.

The activists found that many parents weren't informed about a section of the No Child Left Behind Act that requires school districts to report the names, telephone numbers and addresses of high school juniors and seniors to the military. The federal law, which took effect in 2002, also allows parents to "opt out" of having the students' information sent to the military.

The activists focused on what they could do to inform parents of their "opt out" rights, said Rich Hersh, spokesman for The Truth Project, a Delray Beach nonprofit peace organization.

Across the nation, as the death toll of American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan mounts, parents and peace activists have launched similar efforts.

"The point is to draw attention to the fact that there are people who are unaware of this law," Hersh said.

Nat Harrington, the school district's spokesman, said officials welcomed the group's input and began working to better inform parents and principals. In July, school district officials sent an internal memo alerting principals to the issue and the activists' efforts, Harrington said.

"We quickly saw the need to clarify what rights groups such as peace activists have in addressing students," Harrington said.

To opt out, parents only need to write to their child's high school requesting that the information be withheld from the military, Harrington said. The process is outlined in the appendix of the student handbook, which will be distributed at the start of school on Wednesday.

"We wanted to make this as simple as possible for parents," Harrington said.

An opt-out form also has been created and will be placed in the school district's guidance office and given to high school guidance counselors, he said.

The parents' push comes at a time when military officials are struggling to meet recruitment goals. The Pentagon has been using a Massachusetts marketing firm, BeNow Inc., to collect data on high school and college students for recruitment purposes.

The U.S. Department of Defense said it has used BeNow since 2002 to store information to create a consolidated database. In past years, the various branches of the military compiled the information separately, according to a Defense Department statement.

"This program is important because it helps bolster the effectiveness of all the services' recruiting and retention efforts," the statement said. "It enables the services to better target qualified candidates for particular mission needs."

Under federal law, the school district is required to report information on all 26,000 juniors and seniors, Harrington said. Military recruiters from the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines collect the data throughout the year, he said.

That's why school district officials are asking parents to make their request to opt out within 10 days of the start of school, he said. In addition, in the July 19 memo, the superintendent's office asked principals not to release the information to the military prior to the first 10 days of school, he said.

When the law was first enacted, national groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union threatened to sue school districts, claiming the law violated students' right to privacy. So far, only one school district, in Albuquerque, has been sued.

Peter Simonson, executive director of the ACLU in New Mexico, said the lawsuit was filed in May after failed negotiations with the Albuquerque school district. Simonson said school district officials had no consistent method for informing parents about their rights.

And when parents were notified about the "opt out" option, the school district had already released the information to the military, Simonson said.

Rigio Chavez, an Albuquerque school district spokesman, said that notices are placed in the student handbook and parents could exercise their right to opt out at any time during the school year. The school district believes it has provided parents with adequate notice, he said.

Locally, Hersh said his group took their campaign a step further by meeting with principals to discuss the issue. On Wednesday and Thursday, the organization will appear at certain high schools, which had not been selected as of the end of last week, in an effort inform more parents about the law, Hersh said.

In addition, throughout the school year, activists will target those schools frequented by military recruiters and offer counter-recruitment discussions, he said.

"We're trying to get kids to think about the consequences of choosing life in the military," he said.

— William Cooper Jr.
Palm Beach Post


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