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Fairfax County debates honors for high school graduates enlisting in military

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In Fairfax County, where honors abound for high school seniors on the road to college, a growing chorus of parents says that spring graduation ceremonies should recognize a long-overlooked cadre of students who have chosen another path: enlistment in the military.

These parents are pressing the county school board Thursday night to acknowledge that volunteering for the armed forces is a commitment worthy of a public display of respect, with red, white and blue “honor cords” that graduates would wear around their necks as they receive diplomas.

“In this area, it seems like if you don’t go to college you’re almost not worth as much as someone else,” said Carolyn Kellam, one of the Fairfax parents who has been lobbying the board. “But I don’t think college is the end-all be-all for everyone, and it doesn’t have to be. There are other choices out there.”

No one on the board wants to cast a vote that seems at odds with Kellam’s view. Nor is there any public push-back in Fairfax from critics of military recruiting in high schools. But the question of how to recognize enlistees is politically sensitive. Some board members want to give principals freedom to honor enlistees as they see fit.

At Marshall High, Principal Jay Pearson said enlistees are cheered at a pre-graduation awards ceremony, but honor cords have long been reserved for members of academic honor societies.

“For the school board to write policy to dictate what we do — this is what I oppose,” Pearson said.

(READ MORE: Meet the mother behind the push for recognition)

To outsiders, the difference between the two sides seems like shades of gray. But to parents who have pushed for cords, the choice is black and white — a decision that will symbolize whether schools value students who opt for the infantry as much as those who go to the Ivy League.

Seniors who win ROTC scholarships or admission to a military academy are routinely lauded at graduation, but recognition is more uneven for those who have volunteered to join the rank and file. At some schools, they are applauded or their names are read aloud. Elsewhere, they are not acknowledged at all.

A school board directive to highlight that often-invisible decision to enlist would set Fairfax apart from most, if not all, neighboring school systems in the Washington area.

“The thing we’re trying to do here is recognize the commitment these young men and women have made,” said board member Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield). “If they’re willing to say, ‘You know what, I’m ready to serve,’ that’s somebody stepping up to the line who has demonstrably acquired some critical thinking, strategic planning and leadership skills.”

Less than 2 percent of Fairfax’s Class of 2011 — fewer than 200 out of about 12,000 students — enlisted in the Army, Marine Corps, Navy or Air Force, according to data the military provided.

Among them was Carolyn Kellam’s son Danny, one of 11 enlistees who graduated from Robinson Secondary School in 2011. A few weeks before graduation, their parents asked the school to allow their children to stand for applause during commencement or an awards ceremony beforehand.

The answer was no — there was not enough time to change a mapped-to-the-minute event.

Three days after graduation, Danny Kellam left home for Marine Corps basic training at Parris Island, S.C. He ships out to Afghanistan next month.

Across the country, a growing number of schools and communities are using graduation ceremonies to recognize young warriors-to-be alongside valedictorians and star athletes.

The trend has discomfited pacifists in some parts of the country, but the sentiment has not been expressed publicly in the local debate.

Among members of the Fairfax school board, there seems to be consensus that enlistees deserve recognition. The question is how.

Honor cords

Those lobbying for honor cords say telling principals to recognize the enlistees in a “meaningful way” — as some board members have discussed — is too vague.

“Meaningful way — what does that mean?” said Schultz, who is pushing for the honor cords. “Does that mean an asterisk in the graduation ceremony handout? Does that mean hanging a banner with their names on it? One person’s meaningful is another person’s insignificant.”

Principals have asked for flexibility, however, saying that every school needs to be able to plan commencement exercises according to its own traditions. Some schools use honor cords to recognize academic achievement or community service, for example. Others do not use them at all.

Parents say they are looking for a simple, outward honor for enlistees — not just to recognize individual students but also to remind every parent and grandparent in the graduation audience that a country at war needs soldiers and should appreciate those who volunteer.

“We don’t live like we’re at war. It’s like we don’t even acknowledge it in any way,” said Christine Zinser, whose son Philipp enlisted in the Marines last year before graduating from Robinson. If a few students wear a braided cord in the colors of the flag, she said, “no one has to say anything. It’s a symbol — a reminder of the service, the sacrifice.”

Current seniors said their choice to enlist had nothing to do with wanting public recognition, but they said they would welcome the chance to wear an honor cord.

“That would be amazing — so people would just know this is what we’re doing and this is the path we chose,” said Fairfax High senior Christopher Guanilo, 18, who signed up for the Army last year and went to boot camp over the summer.

Military’s draw

Some teens said they were drawn to the armed forces by the promise of immediate financial independence and help paying for college someday. Others crave the military’s discipline or want to prepare for a career in law enforcement.

They bristle at the idea that they have joined up because they have no other options.

Some people assume enlistees are “not very intelligent,” said South Lakes senior Lee Maring, 18, who enlisted in the Army on Feb. 29.

“That isn’t true at all,” said Maring, who hopes to become a cryptologic linguist — a translator who analyzes messages coming from foreign countries. “It’s something that you want to do.”

For principals, there is not much incentive to trumpet enlistment in the military. Their job evaluations (and neighborhood real estate prices) are tied to a school’s record of producing stellar students, not soldiers.

Some principals said they simply had not given much thought in years past to honoring enlistees.

“I feel remiss that we haven’t been doing it,” said Robinson Secondary Principal Dan Meier. “I commend these parents that brought it up. Robinson has been a school for 40 years — why this hadn’t come up previously, I don’t know.”

Change is already in the works at Robinson, a school named after a soldier who died in combat in Vietnam.

No matter how the school board votes Thursday, Meier said, this spring Robinson enlistees will wear an honor cord and will be asked to stand for applause at graduation.

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