Schools and Military Face Off
Sunday, June 19, 2005
GREECE, N.Y. -- When Capt. Larry Dibble wanders into Greece Olympia High School, just outside Rochester, he is greeted with smiles and handshakes. Teachers invite him into their classrooms to talk to students about joining the Marine Corps. The school provides an almost-complete list of student names and telephone numbers.
In another suburb, at Fairport High School, Dibble is barred from setting up a recruiting table. Appointments are required to talk to students, and interviews are allowed only in the guidance office. The school will release student contact details only with written parental approval.
The different receptions reflect the twin poles of a nationwide debate about military recruiting in high schools that has heated up with the war in Iraq and the increasing demand for military manpower. As pressure mounts on recruiters to meet their monthly targets, principals across the country are grappling with difficult decisions over how much access to provide the military.
A little-noticed clause in the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act requires high schools to hand over students' names, addresses and telephone numbers to military recruiters as a condition of receiving federal aid. But some school districts are challenging the military's interpretation of the law, arguing that they are obliged to protect the privacy rights of their students.
"We're not going to give out information about our students unless we absolutely have to," said David Paddock, principal of Fairport High, who placed strict limits on the activities of military recruiters after a verbal confrontation between a Marine sergeant and a student peace activist. He describes the school's policy as "pro-kid, not anti-military."
Developments in Fairport, a largely white school district in an affluent suburb of Rochester, are being closely watched by other school districts unsure about their obligations under the Bush administration's signature education initiative. Some previously recalcitrant districts have begun to provide student information to the military after being threatened with retaliation by the Department of Defense, while others are reevaluating their access policies after reports of misconduct by military recruiters.
In one well-publicized case in Colorado, Army recruiters were tape-recorded encouraging a student journalist posing as a high school dropout to create a diploma from a non-existent school to comply with military enlistment requirements. They also were heard giving him advice on how to disguise a chronic "marijuana problem" and how to pass a mandatory drug test. The head of Army recruiting in Denver, Lt. Col. Jeffrey Brodeur, described the practices as "completely unacceptable."
The Army Recruiting Command declined to permit a reporter to observe its operations in Rochester, referring questions to the Pentagon. But the Marine Corps, which has been more successful in meeting its monthly recruiting targets, allowed a reporter to spend a day with its recruiters as they sought enlistees in Rochester area high schools.
The day begins at 8 a.m. in the Marine Corps recruiting office in downtown Rochester, one of several dozen recruiting stations in New York state. The drive is planned like any other military operation, with color-coded pins on maps denoting "target schools," clearly defined objectives and a strategy for achieving them. The Rochester region is expected to "ship" -- military jargon for "deliver" -- 101 new recruits to boot camp every year, part of a nationwide total of about 40,000.
It is a labor-intensive, frequently frustrating business. An average of 10 telephone calls is required to produce a single "contact" with a prospective recruit. Five or six contacts are needed to gain an "appointment." It takes two or three appointments to set up an "interview," a three-hour session that tests the persuasive powers of the recruiter. One in five interviews results in a "contract," or a commitment to join the Marine Corps.
"You can't expect immediate results," says Dibble, who oversees high school recruiting efforts in western New York state. "It's very hard work."
After morning strategizing, the Marines head to Greece, a bedroom community on the outskirts of Rochester. This is prime recruiting territory: middle-class, conservative, economically depressed. Several large companies in the Rochester area, including Kodak and Xerox, have cut back in recent years. Other than the military, there are few jobs for high school graduates.