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Tuesday, January 27, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 26.0° F  Overcast
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Critics say recruiters have too much access
Despite new policy, controversy continues over presence of military in city high schools
From a recent protest rally outside the school district headquarters: An ongoing
From a recent protest rally outside the school district headquarters: An ongoing tug-of-war.
Credit:Mary Langenfeld

Robert Kimbrough, a longtime local peace activist, clearly remembers the last time Madison Veterans for Peace was allowed inside a Madison high school during a military recruitment event.

"It was at East High School a few years ago and our table happened to be next to the Marines' table," says Kimbrough, who served in the Korean War. "I noticed one of the recruiters was a three-stripe sergeant, so I started talking to him. I found out he had never been to Iraq or overseas, and I told him I thought it was ironic that he was recruiting kids whose lives would be endangered by war."

Kimbrough says the Marine replied that Veterans for Peace had no business spreading its peace message while recruiters were present. Kimbrough disagrees.

"Our feedback from the kids indicated that they appreciated us being there along with the recruiters," he says. "We would tell them about alternative ways to get money for college, and about alternative career opportunities such as the Peace Corps and Teach for America. We told them that every [military] contract has a small-print disclaimer that says anything in the agreement can be changed once you are sworn in."

Kimbrough and other members of Veterans for Peace believe this Marine took his complaint elsewhere, because shortly afterward, Veterans for Peace was told it could not be in the schools on the same days as military recruiters.

The situation exemplifies the ongoing tug-of-war between military recruiters and counter-recruiters in Madison schools. Tensions have flared over the school board's decision last fall to allow U.S. Army recruitment ads on high school scoreboards. The issue has also drawn protesters to school board meetings, including the one in March at which the district revised its policy on access to military recruiters.

School board president Arlene Silveira says the new policy, which addresses college and employment recruiters as well as the military, seeks to ensure that all outside groups are treated the same: "Now it's up to the schools to ensure that it's working."

Pat Grobschmidt, a U.S. Army recruiting spokeswoman based in Milwaukee, says school districts must determine how much access recruiters have to students.

"[Army] recruiters do not visit high schools to recruit," she says. "They visit high schools to spread the Army story. We do get leads that way, and some recruits as a result."

Between October 2007 and April 2008, says Grobschmidt, 124 people were recruited from the Madison area for the Army or Army Reserves.

Strictly speaking, the issue of whether to allow recruiters into the schools is not up to the schools. Under the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001, the military must be given the names, addresses and telephone numbers of secondary school students (unless they opt out in writing). And recruiters must be granted the same access to secondary students as colleges and prospective employers.

Just what constitutes "same access" has become a bone of contention, subject to interpretation by school officials, school boards, military recruiters and peace activists.

In 2003, the school board crafted a policy to meet NCLB requirements while satisfying both military recruiters and peace activists. Bill Keys, then school board president and now a member of a local group called TAME (Truth and Alternatives to Militarism in Education), says the policy "loosened up" a previous policy that was much more restrictive to the military. But it "limited the Armed Forces to three visits per school year and the visits had to be in the guidance office."

David Hoppe, a recently retired East High guidance counselor, thinks the three-visit policy is more than fair, especially since each branch of the Armed Forces is treated as a separate entity.

"In all the time I worked as a guidance counselor at East, I can never recall a prospective employer making a visit to the guidance office," he says. "It's not a placement center, as in college." He adds that "almost every college that visits a Madison high school, with just a few exceptions, makes only one visit per school year."

Critics of military recruitment in the schools are unhappy that recruiters are allowed into classrooms as guests and into hallways and other common areas without this being counted as one of the three official visits.

"Anytime a recruiter comes into our school representing the military it should be counted as a visit," says Rebekah Rodriquez, a Memorial High sophomore and member of Students for Progressive Causes. "That should apply to recruiters who wear their full uniform when they come as volunteer tutors, and to recruiters who speak in classrooms."

Spokeswoman Grobschmidt says the Army "offers a multitude of classroom presentations on such topics as first aid, mechanics, journalism and music. Some schools don't view these presentations as official recruiting visits. But if they do, all we ask is that they provide opportunities for students to learn about [Army] incentives and what the Army can do for them."

Rodriquez says Memorial's cafeteria has been used by recruiters from four different military branches - Marine Corps, Army, Air Force and National Guard.

"There were two from each branch, and they set up tables in the cafeteria during lunch," says Rodriquez. She's particularly concerned about the military's open bias against gays, which she feels violates a state statute regarding the treatment of public school students.

"I'm also a member of the Gay Straight Alliance," she says. "Some of our group went up to the recruiters and said, 'I'm gay. Can I join?' And the recruiters would say, 'No.'"

The school district's new policy specifically states that cafeterias are off-limits to recruiters. But it also allows each principal to decide whether a recruiter can drop in outside of a scheduled appearance.

"There is one recruiter in particular who is in our building a lot," says Owen Daniels, a senior at East. "He's a Marine. He comes to drop off things to the principal, but he stays awhile. A couple of weeks ago, he was here for a half hour. He hangs around in the hall and confronts the peace activists. It's like he's looking for a fight."

Daniels calls this Marine "very persuasive. I know students are impressionable. I think someone like that could get to them." He says recruiters from six different military branches exhibited in a large commons area at East High last winter, while members of Veterans for Peace protested outside.

But East principal Alan Harris says any future scheduled recruiting will occur only in the school's guidance center.

When one such lunch-hour visit took place at East in early April, students were invited via the school bulletin to stop by. Harris turned down a reporter's request to observe the recruiting process.

"It's private," he says. "It's the same way we would handle a visit between a student and a college recruiter."

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