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BERKELEY: School, military skirmish over data on students

Thus far, 90 percent of the students at Berkeley High have refused to have their names released to military recruiters.

by Carolyn Jones

Berkeley High remains the only high school in the nation that has failed to comply with the military's request for students' data, a Department of Defense spokesman said.

A month ago, the school -- under pressure from the government to release the data or lose funding -- changed its policy that blocked the release of students' personal information. The new policy allows students and parents who do not wish to be contacted by military recruiters to opt out by signing a form.

But the school did not immediately release the data to the government. Instead, a group of parents have been on a campaign to ask each and every student whether they want to opt out.

Thus far, 90 percent of the students at Berkeley High have refused to have their names released to military recruiters.

Berkeley High risked losing $10 million in federal funding, and possibly faced legal action, if it did not change its policy regarding military recruitment.

The controversy began in 2001, when the federal No Child Left Behind law passed. It requires school districts to hand over personal contact information for all juniors and seniors to military recruiters. The law also allows students to opt out.

The Berkeley Unified School District board has a strict policy against releasing students' personal information. So previously, instead of adopting an opt out policy, it used an "opt in" procedure in which students and parents could sign a form only if they wanted their information released to the military.

The result was that only about two dozen students a year opted in. One year only 16 did, said district spokesman Mark Coplan.

The military was not thrilled with the results and began pressuring district and school administrators to increase the numbers.

Maj. Stewart Upton, Department of Defense spokesman, said that recruiters have a tough time finding students because of "reduced interest" among young people and the strict eligibility requirements.

"Today's military recruiters must find and recruit from among the best and brightest of America's youth in a very challenging market," Upton wrote in an e-mail. "One vital tool that our recruiters rely on to help them succeed is access to high schools, in order to provide students with the opportunity to learn about the option of military service."

Local military recruiters complained, and progressively higher-ranking officers all the way up to a general came to Berkeley and met with Superintendent Michele Lawrence to resolve the matter.

Things escalated in May, when "the general got a call from the undersecretary of Defense, who made it clear in no uncertain terms that Berkeley was the last high school in the nation that has not complied and they would move forward with legal action," Coplan said. After that, Defense Secretary Robert Gates wrote Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger asking for something to be done.

The school held several assemblies a month ago, explaining why the district was changing its policy and advising students to sign the forms immediately -- whether they wanted to opt in or opt out.

Of the school's 1,500 juniors and seniors, 1,350 signed opt out forms prohibiting the district from turning over their data. The remaining 150 either have not responded or signed consent forms allowing the district to turn over their names, address and phone numbers to the military.

Parent volunteers are contacting the 150 to determine their intentions. The results won't be available until next week, after school is out for the summer.

"Not a lot of people know what's going on with the war," said Krystal Elebiary, a junior who joined with student Daniel Sandoval to write a letter and collect about 250 student signatures proclaiming, "We will not be used as tools for an unjust and imperialist war."

At a news conference Monday, the pair criticized the Bush administration for forcing Berkeley's compliance by threatening to withhold education funding from the school.

— Carolyn Jones
San Francisco Chronicle
2007-06-12


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