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Reining in recruiters: Families of students who feel dogged by military back AB1778

The military is not willing to take no for an answer.

Matthew Yi

Sacramento -- It was in the spring of 2004 when Darinel Reyes, then a senior at Watsonville High School, got a phone call at his home from a military recruiter.

He politely told them he wasn't interested in joining the service, but in the following weeks and months, he kept getting calls and even a letter in the mail from the Army urging him to reconsider. He felt so pressured that he asked his mother if they could move back to their hometown of Morelia in the Mexican state of Michoacan so he wouldn't have to enlist in the U.S. military, said Reyes, now 20.

"I felt like they were going to force me to join," he said.

What also surprised Reyes was that the recruiter had his home address and phone number. Reyes and his mother didn't realize that his school was releasing contact information for all juniors and seniors to military recruiters under a requirement of the No Child Left Behind Act in order to receive federal funding.

The incident is at the heart of a bill working its way through the state Assembly. Under AB1778, school districts would be required to notify parents or legal guardians that they have the right to opt out of the student lists sent to military recruiters. The legislation also would add an opt-out request to students' emergency contact forms.

Supporters of the legislation argue that many schools don't do an adequate job of notifying parents of that option now. They also charge that with military recruiters having more difficulty meeting their goals in recent years, parents need to be aware that their children can be targets of heavy-handed recruiting attempts.

Marine Corps Maj. Mike Samarov, in charge of recruiting in the San Francisco Bay Area, said the multiple calls could be coming from different branches of the military.

"Each of the four branches, along with the National Guard and the reserves, each have recruiting services, and we are quite separate," he said.

Samarov said his office does make cold calls to prospective recruits, but he added, "We do it in a measured and reasonable way."

"And if someone asks not to be called, we don't," he said.

Assemblywoman Sally Lieber, D-Mountain View, author of the bill, said that in many instances, notice to parents about removing their children's contact information is buried inside a thick student handbook.

"In my school district, the opt-out form is page 53 out of 58 pages of disclosure," she said.

Another concern is that once military recruiters get a student's information, they can be aggressive in going after potential recruits, she said.

"It's really become a problem for a lot of families, with military recruiters calling at all hours. ... In many cases, these are unwanted contacts," Lieber said. "The military is not willing to take no for an answer."

Convincing young people to enlist has been a tough sell in recent years, especially for the Army.

In fact, the Army reported in September that its recruitment fell more than 6,600 short of its annual goal of 80,000, the first shortfall since 1999 and the largest in 26 years. The Army has met its monthly goals since then, but the numbers lag behind last year's figures in the same periods.

But critics of the bill say military recruiters shouldn't be singled out and that any change in the school policy should equally affect other types of recruiters, such as colleges and employers.

"If the parents and school districts feel that they need to protect the privacy of families, fine, but the implication is that there's something wrong with the military, and that's not right," said Bill Manes, legislative officer of the California State Commanders Veterans Council. "You give (military recruiters) an even playing field. That's all we're asking."

To address that argument, the bill was amended Thursday to require separate opt-out check boxes in the student emergency contact form for college as well as military recruiters.

Assemblyman Robert Huff, R-Diamond Bar (Los Angeles County), said Lieber's bill is unnecessary because federal law already requires schools to notify parents.

"I think it's a flawed legislation. I don't think it's necessary. We don't need to micromanage our schools," he said.

Huff, along with two other Republican Assembly members, voted no in the Education Committee, but the bill passed with seven yes votes from Democrat lawmakers last week. Next stop is the Assembly's Veterans Affairs Committee, which is scheduled to consider the legislation on Tuesday.

One parent of a high school student said the bill is sorely needed because military recruiters who have gained student contact information have been much too aggressive.

"They've been calling for the last two years," said Linda Cialeo, 51, of Rancho Bernardo in north San Diego County.

Cialeo, whose 17-year-old son is a high school senior, said that initially she didn't know her son's high school was releasing contact information to military recruiters. In fact, she said, there was only one opt-out check box that would prevent the release of her son's contact information to everyone, including colleges.

But her school district has changed its forms this year to offer separate opt-out options for student lists for various groups such as colleges, employers and military recruiters. In New Mexico, a lack of information for parents was a point of contention for the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a lawsuit against the school district, Albuquerque Public Schools.

"The opt-out provision was buried in the student handbook, and unless the parent knew about it and went out of the way to look for it, they would pass right by it," said Peter Simonson, executive director of ACLU-New Mexico.

The suit was settled in December when the school district agreed to include the opt-out form in the student registration packet and to send out notices alerting parents once every semester.

In previous years, about 100 to 200 students would opt out each year, but so far this year, the number has increased to more than 500, said Rigo Chavez, a spokesman for the school district.

In California, some schools already have included the request to opt out in the student emergency contact form, and they have seen drastic increases in such requests.

For example, the number in Watsonville High School rose from 90 in 2005 to more than 900 this year, said Josh Sonnenfeld, 20, of Santa Cruz, a local activist who has been lobbying at nearby school districts.

He said protection of privacy is his biggest motivation for supporting AB1778.

"It exclusively has to do with high school students and their families and their right to privacy," he said. "The bill basically says that we believe parents and students have this choice to withhold personal information."

myi@sfchroicle.com.

— Matthew Yi
San Francisco Chronicle
2006-05-06


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