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Recruiting kids: The Pentagon leaves no child behind

By Kathryn Casa

BRATTLEBORO — Shuffled inside the voluminous back-to-school packet of forms and information that will go home with every high school student in the coming weeks may be a particularly important yet easily overlooked notice.

Information telling parents and guardians how they can advise a high school not to give their child’s name and contact information to the Pentagon might be a form letter that parents can sign and return; it might be a brief paragraph in the student handbook. Or it might not be there at all.

There is no uniform way in which high schools in Vermont and around the country inform parents of their right to refuse to surrender their child’s information to the Pentagon, and no guarantee that information about opting out is being provided to parents, as required by law.

If schools err, often it’s on the side of funding. Failure to comply with the No Child Left Behind provision could mean a cutoff of federal education money, as some two dozen California schools discovered when they attempted to impose an opt-in policy, only to face intense state and federal pressure.

There are a few standouts. One Montclair, NJ, district has adopted a “whole school” notification plan that starts with incoming freshmen, the current issue of NEA Today, the magazine of the National Education Association, reports. Parents are told of their right to opt-out through home-school communications and then sent a reminder. “After the most recent round of notices, Montclair reports that 92 percent of parents asked the schools not to give their children’s contact information to the military,” the magazine noted.

Another standout is New Yorks’ Fairport Central School District, where the superintendent and school board have been adamant in protecting student and family privacy.

But that kind of activism is rare, and most districts are taking a less-concerted, hopscotch approach to the issue. A survey this summer by the Burlington Peace & Justice Center found some high schools notify parents via student handbooks; others bundle opt-out directives within a blanket form that also requests that information be withheld from colleges; and still others do nothing at all.

“Each school has its own way of doing it,” said Brattleboro counter-recruiting activist Ellen Kaye. “At Brattleboro Union High School, they send everybody’s information starting when they are a freshman; in other schools, they wait until 11th grade. You need to, in writing, request that your child’s information not be released.”

One thing is for certain: Failure to do so means that a child’s information, including e-mail addresses, cell phone numbers, and ethnicity, will be fed into a vast, professionally managed databank of 30 million 16- to 25-year-olds that is manipulated, studied, and tailored to help increasingly desperate military recruiters meet their flagging recruitment goals.

No child left out
Under the sweeping federal No Child Left Behind education reform act, any high school that receives federal funds is required to hand over to the Pentagon the names and contact information of all secondary-school students unless a parent or guardian asks for that information to be withheld.

The Student Privacy Act of 2005, introduced in the House in February, would change the provision to an opt-in clause. In other words, parents would have to specifically ask that their child’s contact information be sent to the Pentagon, instead of asking that it not be sent. The measure was referred to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, where it languishes while Congress is in summer recess.

In the meantime, a national movement has taken shape over the summer, aimed at informing parents of their rights and encouraging them to ask their school boards to make their opt-out policies as clear as a school bell.

The Leave My Child Alone movement is also challenging the Pentagon’s collection and use of the information as a violation of a child’s right to privacy.

“The Leave My Child Alone coalition tries very hard to make sure we are not perceived as an anti-military or anti-soldier organization. This is much more a privacy campaign … as far as what kind of access the government should have to a child’s information,” said spokeswoman Julie Pezzino.

She said the campaign focuses on a simple issue: Should public high schools turn over private contact information of minor children to military recruiters without explicit written permission from parents. “We support our troops,” the group’s website declares, “but we do not support recruiters visiting or calling children at their homes without explicit written permission from their parents.”

The Defense Department has hired a private marketing firm to manage a database of personal information on students in an effort to shore up slumping military recruitment numbers. The Wakefield, MA, firm, BeNow Inc., analyzes data and profiles students who meet the age and school requirements for military service.

The database, known as Joint Advertising and Marketing Research and Studies (JAMRS), is updated daily and distributed monthly to military recruiters, according to the Leave My Child Alone campaign. It contains cell-phone numbers, e-mail addresses, height, weight, ethnicity, areas of study, grade-point averages, birth dates, and Social Security numbers, according to news reports.

“The Pentagon is supposed to inform the public that they are keeping databases of this sort at least six months before the database has actually gone into effect,” said Pezzino. That would have been two years ago. “Evidently, there has never been a public notification that that Pentagon database existed.”

The Guardian’s phone calls to BeNow and the Pentagon were not returned. However, the JAMRS website reveals a broad marketing and public relations approach to recruiting. “Put simply, JAMRS helps DoD recruiting professionals gain a better understanding of market dynamics and demographic trends, and increases department-wide efficiencies with a variety of joint advertising, market research and study programs,” the website states.

“From an advertising perspective, JAMRS coordinates campaigns aimed at the influencers, creating a more receptive audience among key people in a young person’s decisions about the future.”

Among the “influencers” — those adults such as parents and teachers who influence a teen’s decision-making — are mothers, targeted in a JAMRS study that tracked the attitudes of 270 mothers of 10th- and 11th-graders.

Results of the study, like most of the information on the website, is password-protected. However, the open portion of the site states, “A key goal of this research is to validate JAMRS’ influencer communications strategies and refine approaches toward: friends/associates of mothers who may be strong supporters of military service; motivating friends/associates in helping mothers who are ambivalent or undecided about advocating military service; gaining acceptance among and avoiding alienating mothers strongly opposed to military service as an option for their child.”

There is also a study of college dropouts that recruiters can use to determine how to “capitalize on this group of individuals.”

A testimonial from an apparently satisfied customer, the U.S. Navy Recruiting Command, touts JAMRS’ “high school master file” and an ad tracking study: “To generate the high school master file would cost our agency $375,000 to $400,000 a year; an ad tracking study between $300,000 and $1.8 million. These figures are even more staggering when one thinks the same efforts would be duplicated by the individual services.”

With the bad news from Iraq and Afghanistan on an upswing, in July, the Army admitted that it expects to fall short of its recruiting target for the year for the active, Reserve, and National Guard ranks. As of the end of July, the active-duty Army remained 25,000 short of its goal of 80,000 new recruits by September, and next year’s shortfall is expected to be even greater. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker told reporters it “may be the toughest recruiting environment ever.”

The environment has created something of a feeding frenzy among recruiters, with no signs that it will abate. The media abounds with stories like one in which a recruiter was thrown out of a Tijuana high school, where he was attempting to lure Mexican students with promises of U.S. citizenship in exchange for military service.

Immigrants with green cards make up approximately four percent of enlisted personnel — almost 40,000 — one-third of whom are from Latin America, thanks to the Bush administration’s 2002 push to recruit non-citizens by establishing a fast track naturalization process. A privately run military PR website last month was shilling incongruous free photos of a naturalization ceremony for troops serving in Iraq.

One of the Army’s new recruitment programs is the “Hispanic H2 Tour,” featuring a customized Hummer, produced by Latino Sports Marketing of San Diego, designed so that teenagers can try out interactive video simulations on multiple screens. The H2 tour visits car shows, county fairs, baseball games, and other events, wrote Linda Bilmes, of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, in a Los Angeles Times commentary.

Bilmes said the so-called Dream Act, pending in Congress, would grant permanent residency to the children of illegal immigrants if they graduate from two years of college or serve two years in the military.

In a column this week calling for truth in recruiting, New York Times columnist Bob Hebert reiterates how “youngsters recruited most relentlessly are those from small towns, rural areas and impoverished urban neighborhoods. They are kids who are not well-to-do, and who don’t have much of a plan for their future. The military, with its uniforms, its slick ads and its video games, can look very good to these unsophisticated youngsters.”
These teens are being told just about anything to ward off misgivings, Hebert wrote. “Need money for college? No problem. You want to go to a nice place? Certainly. Maybe even Hawaii. … There was no mention of combat, or what it’s like to walk the corridors and the grounds of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, where you’ll see a tragic, unending parade of young men and women struggling to move about despite their paralysis, or with one, two or three limbs missing.”

Trolling for kids
Kaye said she was surprised to see a Marine recruiter in full uniform last month outside the public swimming pool in Brattleboro — a popular summer hangout for young and low-income children. Recruiters have also been spotted this summer at a grocery store parking lot where teenagers routinely loiter, and at a popular downtown coffee shop.
“Recruiters are looking everywhere for people to recruit,” Kaye said. “Our pool is a place where low-income youth hang out, and young children. But if you plant the idea in younger people’s minds, by the time you come and recruit them in high school they’re well used to you.”

A September 2004 Army guidebook for high school recruiters recommends recruiters wear their dress blues as often as possible, and especially to school events commemorating the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., and during Black History Month.

The guidebook also urges recruiters to capitalize on a child’s disappointments. “A senior’s plans for the future can, and will, change throughout the last year of [high school]. Plans to go directly into the workplace or attend college will change as the student confronts reality. For example, work-bound students may realize that they lack the necessary training and experience to land a good paying job or for some college-bound students who planned on continuing their education the expected scholarship money didn’t materialize. You need to develop a prospecting plan that will help you identify and capitalize on these changes when they occur.”

Counter weights
Burlington Peace & Justice Center activist Wendy Coe said in addition to adults’ counter-recruiting efforts, among the best way to counteract the recruiters’ tactical advantage is through students themselves.

The center is sponsoring a series of student training workshops throughout the state starting in September, teaching students how to talk to their peers about the aspects of military service that the recruiters aren’t telling them.

They are also urging all Vermont high schools to use a straightforward opt-out form modeled on the one in use at Burlington High School, which gives parents a simple yes or no check-off for whether they want to Pentagon to come calling on their teen.

posted August 26, 2005

Useful resources
Leave My Child Alone Campaign (http://www.leavemychildalone.org/) features FAQs, downloads, and letter-writing resources including an opt-out form letter and a searchable national database of school boards.

Family Policy Compliance Office of the U.S. Department of Education (FERPA@ED.Gov, www.ed.gov/offices/OM/fpco) has information on military recruiter requirements.

HR 551, the Student Privacy Act of 2005. Information is available at the Thomas website, a service of the Library of Congress http://thomas.loc.gov

The military recruiter provision of the No Child Left Behind Act http://www.ed.gov/policy/elsec/leg/esea02/pg112.html#sec9528

JAMRS, the Defense Department’s program for recruiting marketing communications and market research and studies http://www.jamrs.org

The Army’s 2004 guidebook for high school recruiters (in PDF format) http://www.usarec.army.mil/im/formpub/REC_PUBS/p350_13.pdf

— Kathryn Casa
Vermont Guardian


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