During World War II, many American high schools showed an Army Air Corps recruiting film for their male students. "Winning Your Wings," starring Jimmy Stewart, lured countless youngsters into the aviation cadet program.
Some 50 years later, the school board of Portland, Ore., banned the US military from undertaking any recruiting activities in that city's public schools. Board members charged that the Pentagon's "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays in the military violated school policy against recruitment by agencies that discriminate by race, gender, or sexual orientation. The board recently ruled that school officials could provide information on military service opportunities, so long as they also advised students about DOD policy on homosexuals. The board did not end the ban on recruiting on campus, however.
Few systems have gone as far as Portland's. Even so, military recruiters say they meet stiff resistance in a number of schools nationwide. Thirty-one percent of US schools deny access in one way or another. Some withhold student directories. In others, recruiters say, counselors disparage military service and urge students not to fill out applications.
Such actions, when they came to Washington's attention, generated intense Congressional displeasure and sparked a plan to punish uncooperative schools by cutting their access to federal funds. Final legislation did not go that far, but the services hope the new law will ease the way to contacting students.
In February 2000, the Senate Armed Services Committee's subcommittee on personnel, then headed by Sen. Tim Hutchinson (R-Ark.), held hearings on the problem. SSgt. Reggie Hamilton, a USAF recruiter in Georgia, told the panel that some schools in his area released student directories to colleges and potential employers but not to military recruiters. They were allowed access only once a semester, Hamilton said, and had to schedule their visits through the academic counselors.
In some cases, recruiters were allowed to contact only students who opted to take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, a series of tests used to measure the subject's potential for various civilian and military occupations.
The testimony of other recruiters was mixed. One Navy petty officer working in New Jersey reported few access problems, noting that his area was heavily populated with service personnel and was generally more receptive to the military. In contrast, a Marine in Arizona estimated that about half the schools in his district denied recruiters access to student directories.
Invisible Men (and Women)
Several witnesses blamed school resistance on the fact that the services have become less visible to the public.
Lt. Gen. Donald L. Peterson, former USAF deputy chief of staff for personnel, said, "I think that the propensity to join is down, and I'd say that's certainly because of the footprint we have around America. We've reduced our force here by about 40 percent. Our CONUS bases are down 25 percent; our overseas bases are down 65 percent. We don't have the influencers out there that we had. If you take the World War II veterans out, only about six percent of our population has served in the military. It's not that our young people don't like the military, don't want to be a part of it. It's just difficult for them to see it."
Working recruiters gave other explanations.
"The schools are graded on how many of their kids go off to college," said Hamilton, "so a lot of the counselors will hold us back from going in because they're trying to push their kids to go to schools and colleges."
Several recruiters noted too that their states offered generous tuition breaks to residents, which tended to offset the services' traditional attractions of training and post-service college benefits.
On the Senate floor, Hutchinson said, "In 1999, there were 4,515 instances of denial of access to the Army. There were an additional 4,364 instances in the case of the Navy, 4,884 instances in the case of the Marine Corps, and 5,465 instances in the case of the Air Force. ... As of the beginning of 2000, nearly one-fourth of all high schools nationwide did not release student directory information to armed forces recruiters."
Incensed, Hutchinson introduced a bill to "deny federal educational assistance funds to local educational agencies that deny the Department of Defense access to secondary school students or directory information about secondary school students for military recruiting purposes and for other purposes."
The measure was patterned after a law passed in 1994 that denied funding to uncooperative colleges. That measure, initiated by Rep. Gerald Solomon (R-N.Y.), originally applied only to defense funding but later was expanded to cover money from the Department of Education and other government agencies.
Several education groups opposed the cutoff in the Hutchinson bill. The National School Boards Association said that it recognized the career opportunities the services offered and would work with DOD to improve access but opposed cutting off federal funding to public high schools because it would hurt poor and disabled students. Other organizations opposed giving the military access to any schools.
Parts of the Hutchinson bill were enacted in the 2001 National Defense Authorization Act, but the final version dropped the provision for denying federal funds to secondary schools. That threat still applies only to colleges.
William J. Carr, assistant director, recruiting policy, in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, explained the distinction. "The law requires that, if a college denies access, then it loses grants from a number of federal agencies. When it comes to secondary education, there is no denial of funding."
"The Defense Department has been opposed to doing that in high schools for a couple of reasons. The federal funding that goes to colleges for grants and contracts is significant to them. But, if we take the high school, how much federal funding is provided? The answer is about six percent," said Carr.
Moreover, that funding is wrapped up in teacher training, helping disadvantaged students, and providing impact aid. The view is that cutting off this funding would do more harm than good.
Other Pentagon officials had worried that threatening to cut off the funds would only make the situation more confrontational and pose more problems for recruiters. "That was one of my biggest concerns," said Carol A. DiBattiste, former undersecretary of the Air Force and now a partner in a Washington law firm. "But I don't think the legislation that passed is forcing the issue. I think the best approach is just to continually work the schools so that there is no retaliation against the recruiters."
Although the threat of cutting off federal funds was dropped from the final version, the law still provides for a series of actions by the services.
For starters, the Secretary of the affected armed service is required to send an officer to visit a school when it is reported to be denying access. Hutchinson's original bill called for the messenger to be a general or flag officer, but the final law specifies it be at least a colonel (or Navy captain) or "a senior executive of that military department."
The service has up to 120 days after the initial report to make the visit. If that doesn't resolve the problem, the Defense Secretary is to notify the governor of the state involved and ask for help in obtaining access. The Secretary has up to 60 days to take that action and must send a copy of his letter to the Secretary of Education.
If a school still won't cooperate, the Defense Secretary is to determine whether it denies access to two or more services. If so, he is to notify the appropriate Congressional committees, the Senators from the state involved, and the representative who represents the specific district. A formal statement from the Defense Department said, "The expectation is that each public official learning of a problem would work with the offending school to resolve it."
The law does not take effect until July 2002.
Meanwhile, DOD has gotten a feel for the extent of the problem and has begun to build a national database of problem schools. Under the law, it cannot include a high school that denies access to only one service. Nor can it count private secondary schools that have religious objections to military service or secondary schools that base their exclusions on a majority-vote policy of the local governing body.
The Defense Department statement said, "Preliminary data suggest that between 2,000 and 3,000 secondary schools nationwide (about 10 to 15 percent of all high schools) ultimately will be identified ... under the definitions set forth in current law."
The Pentagon's preliminary list shows that the states with the highest percentages of schools denying access are in New England. (See map.) In Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Maine, 79 to 89 percent of schools have refused access to two or more services. The same data show, however, that from 41 to 53 percent of the schools in these states deny access because of governing body policies or religious reasons, factors which put them beyond the scope of the law.
At the low end of the list, states with five percent or less of their schools limiting recruiting are Texas, Indiana, South Dakota, Colorado, and Alaska. Overall, 31 percent of US schools deny access and 15 percent do so because of governing body policies or for religious reasons.
Defense officials concede that the new legislation lacks sufficient bite to force schools to open their doors, but they hope it will have a beneficial effect nonetheless. Said Carr, "First, it establishes that it is national policy to allow recruiters and students to get together so the students can learn about the military. Also, the Secretary of Education wrote to state governors and reinforced the point that it is in the interests of the education community to work with the military on this."
The Education Secretary's letter said the department hopes the governors "will personally underscore military service as a post-high school option that merits students' careful consideration."
"We are trying to make it clear that recruiters are doing noble work and are decent people," said Carr. "And the more we talk about opportunities in the military, the more likely it is that educators would take that story to heart."
Carr agreed with the recruiters who testified before the Hutchinson subcommittee that many of the high schools are not so much hostile to the military as ignorant of what it offers. "Let me talk about influences by teachers, coaches, and so forth," said Carr. "We know that there are far fewer military alumni now than was the case when we were one-third larger. With fewer people in society with military experience, getting an accurate description of the military around society is that much more difficult."
"When we ask young people about the military, it is surprising how many describe it as being like boot camp. Certainly that is part of the experience for a very brief part of a career, but after that, it is far less regimented. Yet they believe that is what it is, and there aren't as many influencers as there were to correct them in that perception."
Carr said he doesn't think that the anti-military feeling common during the Vietnam War era is behind the schools' resistance to recruiting.
"I think it is driven more by a concern that college is really the right way to go and they would rather limit the interference the military might offer," he said. "Of course, we counter that by saying, 'Let the young person make the decision based on what we can offer them, even if they are motivated toward a college education. Let us talk about what we have there.' "
Another reason for school resistance: They don't like to release the students' names and addresses to third parties.
"There are laws restricting that, and they say, 'I don't want to have people telemarketing, and I'm afraid the military recruiters might be like that,' " said Carr. "That's why the letter from the Secretary of Education was helpful in clarifying that they don't have a problem there in sharing information with the military."
Defense officials clearly hope that actions such as the education secretary's letter, the visits by officers, and in extreme cases, the pressure from members of Congress will persuade more schools to cooperate. There is some evidence that this kind of attention will help.
DiBattiste said, "I traveled to several schools and talked to administrations and encouraged them. In the San Diego and Los Angeles areas and in Miami, San Antonio, and Boston, we asked them not only to turn over the school lists but give recruiters unlimited access. We were very successful in those areas."
Still, there are well-organized groups actively opposed to giving the military any access to high school students.
These include organizations such as the American Friends Service Committee's National Youth and Militarism Program, the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, and the War Resisters League. Most oppose not only military recruiting of any kind but the presence of Junior ROTC units on campus. Others are not necessarily anti-military but object to service policies on gays or their perceived lack of opportunities for women.
Several such groups carry on active campaigns on the Internet. When Hutchinson introduced his bill to block federal funding to uncooperative high schools, Web sites were filled with complaints that the Pentagon was seeking an unwarranted advantage. Others charged that military recruiters already used unfair tactics with students.
When Congress removed the threat of funding penalties from the Hutchinson bill, much of the furor died down, but some groups still oppose any cooperation between public schools and the services. The Portland recruiting ban, for example, still has strong support among anti-military activists. Since it is based on a policy of the local school board, however, the schools involved apparently will not come under the new law's requirement that they be visited by a military official and reported to Congress for noncompliance.
The Pentagon has launched its own Web site aimed at parents, teachers, and other mentors to provide more information about the training and educational opportunities in service. The individual services also have gone on the Web with their messages.
In a more direct pitch, the services offer enlistment bonuses to prospects going into certain specialties. To counter the argument that enlistment ends a student's chances for higher education, Air Force recruiters emphasize the advantages of the Community College of the Air Force, tuition assistance programs, and the GI Bill.
Even if they encounter fewer roadblocks in the schools, recruiters have a tough job selling young people on service. A major downturn in the nation's economy may help to reduce the competition from civilian employers, but it is unlikely to change the minds of young people whose hearts are set on going to college. Once they get in the door, recruiters still have to convince youngsters that military service is not an extended boot camp experience.
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