A Few Good Students

By Kelly Davis

School district gets cozy with local military recruiters

On April 23, the San Diego City Schools Board of Trustees reversed a nine-year practice of denying military recruiters access to student directory information. On Oct. 22, they took steps to, in effect, atone for those nine years.

In November 1993, trustees voted to withhold high school juniors' and seniors' names and contact information from military recruiters, arguing recruiters had overstepped the bounds of acceptable recruiting procedures and were aggressively pursuing students in an attempt to fill enlistment quotas. Recruiters were, however, still permitted to interact with students at job fairs and college information sessions.

And although an October 1998 Union-Tribune article had local recruiters claiming San Diego's school district was “one of only two school districts west of the Mississippi” that withheld student information, the trustees weren't alone in their decision. In 1999, the Pentagon reported that 19,228 high schools nationwide flat out denied military recruiters access to students for the same reasons put forth by San Diego City Schools.

At their most recent meeting, however, citing a failing relationship with the local military community, trustees voted 5-0 to follow district staff's recommendations to “enhance the district's partnership with the military.” Recommendations included forming a joint oversight task force with military and school district representatives to address concerns either party might have, expanding the district's Junior ROTC program to all 16 district high schools-it's currently in 12-and providing students with better access to the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test, or ASVAB, a test used by recruiters to determine who's best qualified for a career in the military.

The catalyst for this move is President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), a massive education reform initiative that took effect in January. Buried deep within the law's 670 pages-section 9528, to be exact-is the following: “... each local educational agency receiving assistance under this Act shall provide, on a request made by military recruiters or an institution of higher education, access to secondary school students [sic] names, addresses and telephone listings.” School districts failing to turn over directory information at the request of local recruiters risk losing NCLB funding, a fact that, according to the Department of Education, has prompted all but 5 percent of the nation's 22,000 high schools to agree to hand over directory information.

A student or a parent of the student may, however, request that the district not release their contact information. San Diego City Schools Legislative Analyst Miles Durfee said that of 37,000 notifications mailed out to parents last spring, only 5,000 were returned asking that the student's directory information be withheld from recruiters. “We feel good that we did everything we could to let people know that we had no choice but to release this information,” he said.

Critics of the NCLB provision say that Bush included it as a favor to Republican members of Congress who previously had consistently pushed for mandatory release of student directory information to recruiters. This year's National Defense Authorization Act, in fact, includes such a provision, although it gives school boards the right to vote to withhold directory information. NCLB overrules that right and effectively removes local control under the auspices of educational opportunity.

As an Oct. 9 letter to school districts nationwide from Secretary of Education Rod Paige and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stated, “Student directory information will be used specifically for armed services recruiting purposes and for informing young people of scholarship opportunities.

“For some of our students,” the letter argues, “this may be the best opportunity they have to get a college education.”

Rick Jahnkow, director of Project YANO (Youth Alternatives for Non-Military Opportunities), a nonprofit organization that works to provide students, especially those from low-income families, with other options for college funding besides military service, is critical of what he describes as the “growing institution of the military establishment.” He worries that the school board's recent action will give a green light for aggressive military recruiting such as what prompted the board's 1993 vote.

“The military in this country is such a sacred cow that many programs that might be concerned about the war or even the quality of education in schools don't want to take on what the military is doing,” he said. “It's been, to me, the most dangerous aspect of this whole thing.”

In a letter dated Oct. 10, 2001, prior to the enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act, U.S. Navy Commander R.K. Wynne encouraged the board to reverse its decision on releasing student directory information on the grounds of potential U.S. military action.

“In view of the tragic events of 11 September 2001,” the letter states, “we respectfully request the San Diego Unified School District review its policy restricting the release of student directory information to military recruiters.

“The images of devastation, the reported loss of life, and the heroic efforts of rescue teams in two of our nation's largest cities should remind all Americans that ‘freedom is never free,'” the letter goes on to say. “In order to maintain [military] force we depend on the success of military recruiting. What does this mean? It means providing students with timely, accurate information and facts about life in the military-not rumors or opinions from disgruntled organizations. It means informing students about our many training and educational opportunities. It means offering those students who accept the challenge of military service with a great start to their adult lives.

“It is time for the San Diego Unified School District to do its part to respond to this challenge by providing directory information to military recruiters.”

Recruiting is big business for the military. The recruiting budget for all branches of the military is roughly $2.5 billion. At the U.S. Army's Recruiting Research Consortium in June, a joint presentation by recruiting specialists cited the past decade's increasing opportunities for college funding and negative attitude towards military service as factors that spawned a push for more aggressive, sophisticated marketing to potential recruits. And a current Army recruiting plan lists Southern California as the No. 3 target area for recruits, due in part to the large Latino population.

While Durfee said that the district's partnership with the military does not intend to target schools with low-income students of color, Jahnkow said that, in his experience, that's precisely what happens. “I believe that recruiters will go anywhere they have an opening to try to sell,” he said. “They also prioritize their pitch to zero in on people they believe are most vulnerable because it makes their job easier.” He cited a countywide study done last year by a UCSD student that concluded that not only were Junior ROTC programs concentrated in lower socioeconomic areas but that Army and Marine Corps Junior ROTC programs were more likely to be in those areas while the Navy and Air Force Junior ROTC program were more likely to be found in affluent areas.

Although only four district high schools are currently without a Junior ROTC program, those four schools are north of the Highway 8 dividing line: Mission Bay, University City, La Jolla and Clairemont.

Colonel William Jackowski who heads up the district's Junior ROTC program said that of the districts 2,152 students that participate, only about 3 percent of go on to join the military directly after high school. Jahnkow, however, takes issue with that number, citing a Pentagon report states that 40 percent of Junior ROTC participants eventually enlist. He also notes Clinton Administration Defense Secretary William Cohen's claim that Junior ROTC “is one of the best recruiting devices we could have.”