The telephone rings -- during dinner, of course. But it's not the telemarketer you expected. It's a call for your high school senior.
"This is Sergeant Malloy from the U.S. Army," the voice says. "May I please speak to Brad?"
Has the military resorted to telemarketing techniques to fill enlistment quotas? No, the military is far more efficient than that. It has armed itself with powerful new rules of engagement, thanks to the U.S. Congress. A little-known provision of the much-discussed No Child Left Behind Act, which took effect in July, requires all school districts and private schools receiving federal funds to provide what educators commonly refer to as "directory information" -- student names, addresses and phone numbers -- to the military. Districts that fail to comply risk losing millions of dollars in federal education funding. Individual students can be exempted through a procedure that, as I see it, carries problems of its own.
The military is already a presence at many U.S. high schools, where Junior ROTC programs are offered and uniformed recruiters visit regularly. But the old methods of recruiting required high school students to initiate contact with the military by joining ROTC, attending recruiter meetings or both. The new provision puts the initiative in the hands of the military to seek out adolescents at an unusually vulnerable time in their lives, when they're trying to make the transition from childhood to adulthood.
Military recruiters on campus were a familiar sight to me as a high school administrator in California for more than 10 years. Their methods are similar across school districts, among recruiters and among all five services. On the day the recruiter is scheduled to speak to students in the career center, he (I don't recall any women) arrives on the campus at a time when students are milling about, between classes or during lunch. He is always a sight to behold: muscular inside a perfectly fitted uniform, bottom half of head shaved with no more than a half-inch of bristles on top, shoes gleaming in the sunlight, posture ramrod straight, and ethnically diverse, to match our student body. The recruiter is a walking statement about what disheveled, non-directed young men could become if they joined up. He represents a much more certain future for students who have performed poorly in school or who have personal trauma in their lives. The military seems like a simplified gateway to adulthood.
I often thought the military's frequent presence on the campus was odd. Neither McDonald's nor Harvard representatives walked around touting the virtues of their institutions. They simply did their duty in the career center, recruiting students to jobs or college, and left. It wasn't until I became a high school principal that I realized the unusual pressure that military recruiters could apply.
My career center aides, the primary contacts for anyone wanting to come to the campus to speak to students about their futures, asked me at least twice a month if it was all right for one military recruiter or another to visit the campus and walk around during lunch. That prompted me to set limits. Military recruiters were permitted to come on Career Day and on days when they were scheduled to make presentations in the career center. Period. Additional visits were not allowed.
I felt a responsibility to protect students from vigorous promotion of any type. It was important to me to maintain an ethic of free choice in the high school environment rather than expose them to possible coercion, for whatever higher purpose. I decided the military should be treated the same way as any other institution seeking the attention of students about to graduate.
Some schools were less welcoming. Before the new law was passed, some 10 percent of the nation's high schools refused to allow military recruiters on campus at all, according to news reports. Some objected on grounds of preserving privacy; some because of the military's perceived bias against gays and lesbians, and some because they don't believe military service is a wise option for their graduates. Apparently, the military and its Capitol Hill allies found such local prerogative intolerable.
So the rules have been changed. The new law requires schools to give military recruiters the same campus access that they give college and employment recruiters. But theoretically, military recruiters don't even need to visit. They can simply request the school's directory information, and the school hands it over. Hence the calls home to the likes of Brad during dinner.
Although principals have been rendered powerless, families have a defense on their own against the encroachment of the military into the private lives of their children. The Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) gives families the right to withhold directory information from nonschool officials. School administrators are required by the law to notify all families of that right every year and to give them the opportunity to opt out. Any family wishing to keep the military from calling must fill out the form that comes home before school starts and return it to the school on time.
If military access to directory information is still required by the time my 10-year-old daughter reaches high school, I intend to fill out that form. I do not want my children subjected to persuasive pressure from the armed forces. However, I can see already that exercising my right of non-disclosure might not be as simple as it sounds. Anyone who has filled out required forms for the start of schools knows how daunting that task can be. There are already opt-out forms for health education classes and the school directory. There are registration forms, health-fitness forms, emergency forms, other forms. With four children in the K-12 system, I already dread August 2006.
Not only will the opt-out provision be inconvenient for families, it also promises to be a continuing headache for school leaders. Many parents read only a small portion of the printed matter sent home, and many will simply overlook or misplace the opt-out form, but that won't prevent them from complaining when the recruiters start calling their kids. This is a public relations problem and a time-waster that schools don't need.
A question that is ignored by the military provision in No Child Left Behind is why schools are required to treat the military differently from other career choices for students. I have always viewed the military as a reasonable post-high school option, just as I view college, technical school or going directly to work. The new law elevates the military above all other possible pursuits because no other institution has the right to personal information. It is that aspect that strikes me as patently unfair. During a time when our nation has not chosen to draft young people, I see no reason the military should be permitted to grab more of a late adolescent's attention than any other activity that provides entry into adulthood and livelihood.
Your son might be able to make an informed choice about whether he wants to talk with a recruiter, because he has received plenty of family guidance, gets good grades and has the prospect of attending the four-year college of his choice. Another young person might not have the same advantages. If she has poor grades and little guidance, she will be more vulnerable to the dashing image she saw on campus, and the smooth talk of the recruiter that emphasized the opportunities and adventures the military can bring. Is the second student making an informed choice when she answers the phone? Adolescents are bombarded with messages about how to act, what to wear, what to be. The military has just escalated the campaign.