Across the country military recruiters are working overtime in schools, trying to persuade young people to join a military desperate for soldiers. But this is a country at war, and we have to ask ourselves whether children between the ages of 14 and 17 have the maturity to make what may be life-or-death decisions based on promises of easy cash and a college education -- promises that sometimes don't come true.
Poor children (often minorities) without money for college are recruiters' easiest targets. Far too many of our nation's disadvantaged youth are forced to gamble with their lives for an opportunity other Americans take for granted. During one-on-one chats with our children, recruiters provide a false image of what joining up means. Images of tough guys and gals in snappy uniforms piloting attack helicopters and driving big Humvees seem pretty exciting to many kids. But the gruesome realities of war and the chance of serving in Iraq or Afghanistan before ever setting foot on a college campus are details left out of slick recruitment brochures. It is beyond heartbreaking to wonder how many 18-year-olds -- still so young -- understood, when told of the opportunities awaiting them, that they might never come home.
How has it happened that recruiters -- who used to come only on career days -- are now present in our schools much of the time? I would wager that most parents have no idea that the No Child Left Behind Act offers public high schools a choice: Provide access to and information about students "for purposes of military recruitment" or risk losing federal funding.
What does this have to do with educational reform, what No Child Left Behind is supposed to be about? A letter sent to educators in October 2002 by then-Education Secretary Rod Paige and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is revealing. It states: "Sustaining that heritage [defending freedom] requires the active support of public institutions in presenting military opportunities to our young people for their consideration. Recognizing the challenges faced by military recruiters, Congress recently passed legislation that requires high schools to provide to recruiters, upon request, access to secondary school students and directory information on those students. Both the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2002 reflect these requirements." It seems obvious that recruitment drives in schools have nothing to with educational reform. This is about our government solving its recruitment problem.
What is a concerned parent to do, especially as recruitment efforts are redoubled? In my town of Cookeville, Tenn., when Quakers and Vietnam War veterans informed students how they could serve their country in other ways, they were banned from the high school for months and called "anti-American." But when an Army recruiter presented a program called "What Patriotism Is" to all the second-graders (7-year-olds) in our county, no one said a word.
Under the No Child Left Behind Act, schools are legally obligated to inform parents of their right to "opt out" of having information about their children given to the military. But the schools often fail to inform, or bury opt-out information in legally obscure language at the back of a student handbook. Opting out seems rather insignificant given the fact that recruiters have physical access on a frequent basis to our schoolchildren.
Without doubt, a great debt is owed to our military, and a military career can be a path of pride and opportunity. The government has a duty to ensure that the military has the soldiers and equipment it needs. But the government must also ensure the protection of our children and safeguard the role of public schools as places of learning. The military should not be permitted to use our schools as vehicles to send young people to war.
Educators, parents and students should demand that Congress rescind those laws that violate the fundamental trust parents have in public schools by requiring schools to become recruitment offices.
The writer worked for Human Rights Watch in Bosnia and has served as a consultant to UNICEF and other U.N. agencies in nine other war-torn countries.