For as long as Principal Alan Goodwin can recall, military recruiters -- in their crisp, carefully pressed uniforms -- have stopped by Walt Whitman High School to chat with students about the benefits of a career in the armed forces. They set up tables, greeted students with a firm handshake and passed out glossy brochures.
But a visit this fall to the Bethesda school by recruiters had parents firing off frantic missives on the school listserv. They demanded to know exactly what recruiters were doing on campus and why the parents had not been told in advance. Goodwin was puzzled.
Recruiters "have been allowed on campus for as long as I can remember," Goodwin said. "But maybe people are more sensitive about it now because of the war."
In past years, parents at Whitman and other high schools across the country may have paid scant attention to calls from military recruiters, but as the war in Iraq continues and the number of casualties grows, parents seem to be growing increasingly sensitive.
Now many parents -- aided by such anti-recruiting groups as the San Francisco-based Leave My Child Alone -- are demanding that school boards make it easier for families to prevent military recruiters from contacting their sons and daughters. They are mounting e-mail and letter-writing campaigns telling families they can block school systems from releasing student information to military recruiters. Even such national educational groups as the PTA are getting involved in the effort to get the word out.
But the military is spreading its own word -- about the benefits of a career in the armed services. This month, the Pentagon launched a $10 million marketing campaign aimed at encouraging parents to be more open to allowing their children to enlist. Although officials say the effort is not tied to growing antiwar sentiment, the commercials feature kids broaching the topic of enlistment with apprehensive parents and urge mothers and fathers to make it a "two-way conversation."
Federal dollars at work
Many states have long allowed military recruiters access to student phone numbers and addresses, but the practice received a boost from the federal No Child Left Behind act. School systems that decline to release the information now risk losing federal dollars.
The advocacy is putting school officials in a quandary, particularly principals who say they want to be responsive to parents but also want to be fair to military recruiters, who by law are allowed the same access to student information as college recruiters. And, principals point out, although some parents wish to prevent military recruiters from reaching their children, others view military service as a good option.
"I'm just trying to follow the rules -- and the rules are the same for everyone,'' said James Fernandez, principal at Albert Einstein High School in Kensington, where recruiters have visited four or five times this year. Last year, five students from the school enlisted in the armed forces.
Principals also know that they must act quickly to address parent concerns. As soon as Goodwin learned that parents were upset, he fired off an e-mail explaining that military recruiters -- like college recruiters -- must make an appointment with the school's career center before coming to campus. He told the parents that recruiters are allowed to set up a table and talk to students, just as they have done in the past. To ease concerns, however, he said the school's career center will give parents advance notice of recruiter visits.
Some parents and organizations have criticized schools for not doing a better job of publicizing opt-out policies, which give parents the chance to restrict the release of student information. Many school officials, however, said they thought parents already knew they had this right.
In the District, Maryland and Virginia, as well as Illinois and California, recruiters have long had access to student information. Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke, a spokeswoman for the Department of Defense, noted that for many years, the vast majority of public schools -- 88 percent -- have allowed recruiters access to student phone numbers and addresses.
Still, these are different times. With the Army having difficulty meeting recruiting goals and rumors about a draft continuing to circulate on the Internet, people are anxious.
"There is some angst,'' said Pat O'Neill, president of the Montgomery County School Board. "I think it's fallout from a not-favorable position to the war in Iraq." Montgomery schools recently gave parents the option of withholding their children's information from military recruiters on the student privacy forms they distribute each year -- something schools in Fairfax County also have done.
Parents in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties last month asked their school boards to better publicize military opt-out choices for parents.
The National PTA also is pushing for change. It wants the law rewritten so that students would have to sign a form saying they want their information released to the military, said spokesman James Martinez.
"We don't have anything against what the military is trying to do," he said. "We're just concerned about student privacy."
Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) has introduced a bill that would rewrite the law so that families have to opt in rather than opt out of having their child's information released.
Does the military have a place in schools?
Jerome Brocks, a parent in the D.C. public school system, said he wants more than better information about opt-out forms. He would like the military to be kept away from students, period. Last year, when his daughter was a senior, he said, he grew alarmed by how aggressively recruiters behaved. Brocks said recruiters called his home and asked to speak to his daughter more than a dozen times.
"I just don't think the military should have a place in our schools,'' he said.
For their part, recruiters say they realize that parents have the right to remove their children's names from recruiting lists but are not certain what impact the opt-out campaigns will have on their efforts.
"Naturally, we'd like to speak to as many young people as possible to start a conversation about what the Army has to offer,'' said Douglas Smith, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Recruiting Command in Kentucky. "It's up to the schools to notify the parents of their options.''
In Montgomery County, Pat Elder, a parent at Walt Whitman, was among those who successfully lobbied the school system to change its student privacy forms to offer parents the option of restricting the release of student information to the military.
But Elder thinks school officials can do even more. He and other parents also are pushing for more consistent systemwide policies for how military recruiters operate on campuses.
"We need to put together systemwide regulations and go after area-wide and nationwide regulations," Elder said. "This issue resonates among parents, not just those who are antiwar, but those who are concerned about their children's privacy."