Targeting recruitment

Parents enlist help in limiting military access to public schools



Clutching a framed photo of her stepson who was killed in Iraq, Tia Steele made a tearful plea to the Baltimore County school board.

Steele, a pacifist, explained that she had been surprised when her stepson enlisted in the Marines after being recruited while attending Dulaney High School. So Steele begged the school board to better educate parents about how they can keep information about their children from military recruiters.

Steele learned the hard way about a provision of the No Child Left Behind Act that received little publicity when the landmark education bill passed in 2001: Every public school district in the country is required to pass along to recruiters the names, phone numbers and addresses of students -- unless the student or a parent specifically requests otherwise in advance.

Different districts use different means for notifying parents of their right to take their children off the list that goes to the recruiters, and this variance has sparked disputes and congressional efforts to modify the provision.

In New Mexico, the American Civil Liberties Union is suing a school district for invasion of privacy, claiming it did not adequately inform parents of the opportunity to "opt out" of the requirement and keep their children's information private. Officials at the Maryland ACLU say they have received inquiries about the issue and are monitoring how school districts in the state are notifying parents of their rights.

In Anne Arundel County, parents are raising complaints with the school board.

Congressional Democrats have introduced a bill that would reverse the provision by requiring parents or students to choose to have information released to military recruiters. The Student Privacy Protection Act has been referred to a House subcommittee.

"It gives parents the opportunity to say, `Yes, I want my child to receive that information,' and say, `I want to be a part of the process,'" said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill. "On the other hand, with opt-out, the information just flows and the parent has no clue.

"We are pushing for this because many recruiters have become very aggressive in trying to meet their goals and sometimes have gone too far," he said, adding that the bill is not meant to prevent students from talking to recruiters if they choose to do so.

Principals uncertain

Dale Rauenzahn, executive director of student support services for Baltimore County schools, said a parent's request that a child's information be kept private is entered into the school district's computer system. Military recruiters who request student information are supposed go to the district's student data office, which produces a list -- minus the students who have opted out.

Rauenzahn said military recruiters are entitled only to name, address and telephone number, and not other information that other groups, such as college recruiters, can access.

Suzy Filbert, a speech pathologist in the district, said she has worked at schools where principals aren't sure how to handle parents' requests that information not be given to recruiters.

In Baltimore County, a handbook is sent home at the start of each school year. In that book is a paragraph telling parents that if they want information on their children withheld from the military and other outside organizations, they must send a request in writing to the principal of their child's school by Oct. 1.

But, critics say, parents often don't read the handbook. Rauenzahn said about 40 percent of parents of high school students return a page from the handbook signifying they have received it.

In Albuquerque, N.M., that method wasn't sufficient to parents and the ACLU. Many parents didn't know about their privacy options before the lists went out to recruiters, said Peter Simonson, the executive director for the ACLU of New Mexico. "What we're asking for is not just notice but timely and meaningful notice," he said. "The parents can't exercise that right if they're notified about it in some obscure part of a student handbook."

Parents in Baltimore County were asking for an opt-out form to be printed on the reverse side of a student's emergency contact form. That form must be returned by each student at the start of the school year.

Filbert, the speech pathologist, also suggested that county schools consider using a stand-alone form similar to one being used in Montgomery County.

At its Sept. 2 meeting, the Baltimore County school board declined to act on the matter. Superintendent Joe A. Hairston said later that the school would mail opt-out notices to the families of juniors and seniors; freshmen and sophomores would receive them in class. The school system also will place a link on its Web site to the information in the student handbook and televise an announcement on its cable channel.

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