Military recruiting provision scrutinized as lawmakers review education act
Note: The Texas Assn of School Boards provides "boiler plate" policies (legal), to which most Texas school districts subscribe. But some, like Austin, adopt local policies. and school districts can adopt local policies which limit access as well. (See websites below.)
By Gerry Smith
WASHINGTON ΓΆ€” Last week, Jutta Gebauer found a note under her office door. A military recruiter was requesting another campus visit.
"I responded that I wasn't interested, but he called today, and he's already scheduled to come in April," said Gebauer, a career counselor at Gonzalo Garza Independence High School in Austin. "Do they not understand English?"
Gebauer said recruiters are aggressively lobbying for more access to students at Garza despite recent policies put in place by the school district to curb their presence on high school campuses.
But as Congress prepares to reauthorize the federal No Child Left Behind law for the first time, lawmakers could repeal a provision requiring public high schools to provide the military with access to campus and student information.
With recruiters struggling to meet enlistment targets during an increasingly unpopular war in Iraq, revoking the mandate would present more challenges to military outreach, said Maj. Robert Morris, commander of the U.S. Army Austin Recruiting Company.
"We probably would have to go to every senior's house or use the telephone directory," said Morris, whose company of 56 recruiters canvasses high school and college campuses throughout the Austin area.
Military recruiters have visited high schools for years.
But their presence has been scrutinized since 2002, when a section of the 670-page law creating standards for student progress also gave military recruiters access to public high school campuses as well as student phone numbers and addresses.
The amendment was sponsored by now-U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., who was a member of the House of Representatives when the law was drafted.
A 1999 Pentagon report found that recruiters across the country had been denied access to schools on more than 19,000 occasions.
In a 2002 letter to school superintendents, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and former Secretary of Education Rod Paige said the provision is "critical to the success of the all-volunteer force."
"For some of our students," they said, "this may be the best opportunity they have to get a college education."
School systems that fail to comply with the provision risk losing federal funding, but parents or students can opt out by asking that their information be withheld.
However, U.S. Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., is expected to reintroduce legislation this week that would give recruiters access to student information only if parents opt in.
The debate over recruiting access comes as some military branches, particularly the Army, struggle to meet annual recruiting goals.
The Army missed its goal of 80,000 troops by 8 percent in 2005 and met its target last year only after adding recruiters, bumping the age limit up twice to 42, raising enlistment bonuses and allowing recruits with tattoos on their necks and hands to join.
Morris said his company missed its quota of enlisting 951 troops by 4 percent last year. He said it has become increasingly difficult to recruit in Austin schools because of a strong "counter-recruitment" movement.
"There's a lot of politics involved," Morris said.
Last fall, the Austin school district enacted policies to limit recruiters' access to students on campus, such as requiring them to get a visitor's badge and giving principals discretion over where they can have contact with students.
Mel Waxler, chief legal counsel for the Austin district, said the policies weren't created in response to a specific incident.
"We just wanted to be clear that when a student says, 'no,' and walks away, that means no," Waxler said.
But Gebauer, who has become the de facto military liaison at Garza, said it has done little to slow the resolve of recruiters, particularly for the Army and Marines.
Garza, which has 300 students in grades 11 and 12, is a recruiter target, Gebauer says, because it has a relatively high percentage of minority students (45 percent), its students are unlikely to go to college and it has an open-enrollment policy that graduates students almost every week.
The alternative high school, for students identified by the state as being at risk of dropping out, opened in 1998 at a former East Austin elementary.
Morris denied that his company targets any particular school and said his recruiters visit 56 high schools across the region with various levels of diversity.
Cedar Park High School, in the suburban Leander school district, has more than 1,000 students in grades 11 and 12 and less than half the percentage of minority students (18 percent) as Garza.
Though Garza restricts recruiters to one visit per semester, Cedar Park allows recruiters one visit a week.
But Pat Pewthers, a career counselor at Cedar Park, said recruiters rarely visit more than once a month.
Even if Congress decides to change the No Child Left Behind Act's recruiting policy, the military has been developing other data-mining projects to help identify potential recruits.
Since 2005, the Defense Department has used commercial data brokers, state driver's license records and other sources to create a detailed database of both high school and college students.
Tim Sparapani, an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington, said the effort violates privacy rights and oversteps the department's authority.
"Not to mention the database was far broader than the regulations said it would be," Sparapani said.
Austin American Statesman
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