The New York City public school system doesn’t have the money, time or organizational skills to make sure every child has a dictionary–or a desk. But this fall it found something like $50,000 to send the parents or guardians of all 250,000 high school students a letter informing them that if they didn’t want their child’s name, address and phone number to be given to military recruiters they had to fill out a form (enclosed) stating they did not consent to the release of the data. I’m sure I’m not the only parent who misplaced the letter before it was even opened, and almost missed the final deadline for sending in the form. Had it not turned up at the last minute, the military would have my 15-year-old daughter’s contact information and GI Joe and Jane could be interrupting dinner nightly to urge her to be all that she can be–Sergeant Sophie!
Military recruiting on campus. Isn’t this where I came in?
Thank the mammoth No Child Left Behind Act. Military recruiters were quietly added to an obscure provision that requires schools to give students’ contact information to “institutions of higher learning”–itself unnecessary, by the way, since students can elect to do this when they take the SAT or the ACT. Combined with the Solomon Amendment, which denies funding to colleges that ban military recruiters, the provision gives the armed forces pretty much total access to the student population. Why the stepped-up effort? You might not know it from the constant barrage of patriotic propaganda and a few highly visible post-9/11 enlistments–Doris Kearns Goodwin proudly announced on the Jim Lehrer NewsHour that her son had joined up–but interest in the military is quite low: Kids would rather get jobs, if they can find them, or go to college. To get one suitable candidate, recruiters must contact about 120 young people. I like to think, too, that aggressive recruitment efforts are also a backhanded tribute to the much-maligned baby boomers. We may have worn silly clothes, smoked too much pot and made millionaires of The Captain and Tennille–“Muskrat Love,” what were we thinking!–but we didn’t raise our children to bomb Baghdad.
Of course, military recruiters have long been active around high schools. But it’s one thing for them to make their pitch to kids who stop at a booth or a table, and quite another for the schools to deliver to the military the names, home addresses and phone numbers of a huge captive pool of teenagers. Even hawkish conservatives–the ones like William Safire who worry about the amassing of personal data by government, credit card companies, Internet merchants and so on–should be able to spot the invasion of privacy here.
The opt-out model of consent, in which parents must take action to keep their kids out of an activity, typically produces few responses. Nothing about this envelope marked its contents as urgent or requiring a response (the letter about military recruitment was wadded in with the discipline code and the principal’s list of rules intended to improve “school tone”–no headphones during class, no cell phones ever). Some parents are too busy, or are uninvolved in their kids’ school lives. Many don’t speak English. Some can’t even read. Interestingly, Stuyvesant, my daughter’s school, will shortly be sending out a letter informing parents about an upcoming survey evaluating student’s mental health post-9/11. The permission form is opt-in–parents have to OK their children’s participation.