Teens' data open to military recruiters
Ohanian Comment: My first reaction on reading this story was that it's old news. But it isn't old if you don't know about it. And I admit to considerable interest in how my old friends in Gwinnett County, the school system that sent two policemen to my house in Vermont, handled this issue: Gwinnett County, the state's largest system, published the disclosure on Page 57 of its student-parent handbook. The notice didn't mention the military or recruiters. It told parents that information, including the student's date of birth, would be released to "appropriate, legitimate agencies" on request. This is a true outrage, one that will kill young people.
By Mary MacDonald
Angela Helwig was in another room of her house when a call came for her 17-year-old daughter. She didn't reach the phone in time. But the machine saved the name and number.
"I called back, and it was a recruiting office," she said. "I asked, 'Why would you call this house?' And they said, 'Do you have a junior or senior in high school?' "
What Helwig discovered that September afternoon has startled many Georgia parents. A little-known section of the federal No Child Left Behind Act requires high schools to release information about students to military recruiters on request, specifically their home addresses and phone numbers. The same information can be shared with colleges and universities.
As military recruiters face increasing pressure to provide a steady stream of volunteers for the armed forces, students as young as 15 are getting the sales pitch.
Military branches contact students directly, which angers parents like Helwig who don't want their children to enlist. Much like colleges, they send brochures to students, emphasizing the positive aspects of military service.
Many students and parents welcome the information, but others are challenging the disclosure of student information as an invasion of privacy. The Georgia PTA, whose membership includes 300,000 parents statewide, supports a national effort to change the law by making it easier for parents to withhold student information.
Military recruiters and sympathetic students and parents say the upset parents are making too much of a fuss. "I just told them I wasn't interested; they stopped calling," said Robert Mode, a Cobb County senior contacted this year by Marine, Navy and Air Force recruiters.
Parents can pull their child's name off the list if they say so in writing. School systems are required to tell them they have that right. But No Child Left Behind leaves it up to schools to decide how to notify parents.
In metro Atlanta only a few school systems sent home detailed explanations, based on records obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution using the state Open Records law.
DeKalb County, like many school systems, informed parents with a short notice in the student code of conduct. It also posted the opt-out form on its Web site.
Gwinnett County, the state's largest system, published the disclosure on Page 57 of its student-parent handbook. The notice didn't mention the military or recruiters. It told parents that information, including the student's date of birth, would be released to "appropriate, legitimate agencies" on request.
The Georgia PTA says the notifications are insufficient.
Because many schools include the information about recruiters in a flood of paperwork sent home in the first week, parents may not be aware that their child's information is sent to the Department of Defense, said Julie Haley, a north Fulton mother who is the state PTA's legislative liaison.
"They have to let parents know," she said. "I would guarantee most parents don't know it's happening."
Schools may also release student contact information to marketers, such as class ring companies. But under a longstanding federal education privacy law, parents have to be told they can remove their child's name.
Parents took note of the way schools disclose these requests after the war in Iraq put greater pressure on military recruiters.
When No Child Left Behind took effect in 2002, former Secretary of Education Rod Paige and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld sent a reminder to schools. The release of student information would be used exclusively to recruit for the armed services, they said, and to inform students of education and scholarship opportunities that they otherwise might not learn about.
Congress included the section in No Child Left Behind at the request of a Louisiana congressman, who recognized the challenges faced by military recruiters in sustaining an all-volunteer force.
Over the past year, the provision has drawn increasing criticism from parent and teacher groups. But an effort to change the law has no apparent momentum.
California Rep. Mike Honda, a Democrat, has 68 co-sponsors on a bill that would alter No Child Left Behind to allow schools to release student information only if parents request it. The National PTA and the National Education Association support the change. But nearly a year after its introduction, the bill has only one Republican sponsor.
The Georgia PTA recently sent letters to Georgia's congressional delegation, urging them to support the change. Its chapters are distributing notices about the release of contact information to parents.
Helwig, who lives near Athens in Oconee County, had heard about the law. But she didn't know the recruiters could bypass parents and call students directly. Her daughter, Erin, plans to attend college and has no interest in enlisting. But the call to her home was disturbing, Helwig said.
"I feel like, yes, they do have their job. But they need to target adults and not teenagers," she said.
The recruiters' job has become increasingly difficult. As the war in Iraq has become deadlier, they have struggled to meet their goals.
Almost 200 Army recruiters are working full time in the region of Georgia that covers metro Atlanta and most of the state. They find potential soldiers by making personal contact through the region's 325 public and private schools, and 76 colleges and universities, said Michele Satterlund, the Army's education specialist for the region.
In the region that includes Columbus, Macon, Atlanta and most of North Georgia, the Army enlisted 1,527 soldiers for active duty in the fiscal year that ended in September — 65 percent of the goal. Army Reserves recruiters signed 437 people — 56 percent of the goal.
The contact lists generated by high schools are an important tool, said Jim Humphreys, an Army spokesman. The recruiters are competing with private employers, and in many cases working around baby boomer parents who are "suspicious" of government, he said. "A lot of parents, they don't like the government calling their child," Humpheys said. "It's hard work. They need those lists so they can do their prospecting. So they can distill down their contacts."
In large high schools, recruiters may get a list of names that is several hundred deep. Not every student will be contacted. Recruiters use different strategies. Army Sgt. Sebastian Pennywell, who recruits from Campbell High School in Cobb County, said he sometimes goes down his list alphabetically.
He asks students about their plans after graduation. If they say they want to go to college, he asks how they plan to pay for it. So far this year, he has signed four recruits, including one whom he first met by phone.
He can't make promises, such as keeping someone out of combat. But he can emphasize the benefits of service. In the Army, depending on the length of enlistment, a soldier can get up to $71,424 to help pay for college.
About 1 percent to 3 percent of the calls end in enlistments, Humphreys said. Although students may be contacted while still in high school, recruits have to meet certain age and education standards. The Army, for example, requires a high school diploma or a GED.
The call has to go to the student, not the parent, Satterlund said. Recruiters are told to keep trying until they get an answer from a student. Once a student tells them to stop calling, Army recruiters are required to stop. But with several service branches, students still may get multiple calls, she said.
"It's every man for himself," Satterlund said. "The Marines are not going to go over to the Navy and say, 'Don't call Johnny. He doesn't want to be bothered.' "
The service branches, like universities and employers, have relied on schools for years. Before No Child Left Behind, schools didn't have to comply with requests to turn over student contacts. But most in Georgia did, she said. Now, schools that refuse to release the information risk losing federal money.
The information does not include student grades or their postgraduation plans. "The directory information is just that," Satterlund said. "It's like the phone book. It's not personal information."
Students have mixed reactions to allowing recruiters access to student information.
In Cobb, Robert Mode has been in the Army Junior ROTC since he was a freshman. He hopes to attend the two-year Georgia Military College after graduation, with a plan to finish a four-year degree through an Army program. The military has a right to reach students to share that information, he said. "I didn't know about the scholarships that were available to me until I could get into JROTC," he said.
Erin Helwig, of Oconee County, feels targeted. "I think it's a violation of privacy," she said. "If a student doesn't want to be contacted, they shouldn't be. It's like harassment."
Erin started getting mailings from the Army and the National Guard shortly after her 16th birthday. She got them before colleges started sending her material. "It says they can give me money for college. You can earn a degree while you're serving your country. It never actually says you can be sent to Iraq. It doesn't mention you actually going to war."
In addition to the call from the recruiter, Erin recently received a survey asking her opinion about the Army. "I feel like I'm being pressured to join," she said.
Recruiters often seek the information at the beginning of the school year. So students who opt out later may have to wait up to a year to get their names removed. At several schools, only a few students have asked to be left alone.
At Sandy Creek High in Fayette County, 11 students were removed from the disclosure list this year, said Principal Roy Rabold. There are about 650 juniors and seniors who would fall under the requirement.
Peace activists have stepped up their efforts to alert parents and students.
The Georgia Peace and Justice Coalition, which has organized protests against the war in Iraq, this fall distributed opt-out forms to students at football games at Grady High in Atlanta.
On a recent afternoon, Ted Brodek, a coalition member, distributed a copy of the opt-out form used this year at Decatur High. It allows parents, and students who are 18 or older, to select whether they want their name released to military recruiters, or just colleges and universities.
"It's not anti-war," said Marcus Patton, a teacher at Decatur High. "Parents don't know. That's the main thing. They should at least know their child's information is being given ou
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