October 19, 2006

By Erin Post

A table neatly stacked with gold and black brochures, stickers, pencils and key chains went largely unnoticed last Thursday afternoon in a hallway at Harwood Union High School.

"Maybe it's the camouflage," quipped Sergeant Jon A. Pedersen, a U.S. Army Recruiter based in Barre. Most students, loaded down with books and backpacks, took just a casual glance at the table and at the uniformed sergeant as they scurried past, eager to get to their next class or to the lunchroom.

Some may grab a sticker or a pencil, Pedersen said, but few stop to chat. A stack of forms asking students to check off career opportunities they may be interested in-listing a range of options including field artillery, explosives, intelligence and administration--went untouched.

That's not unusual, Pedersen said; in fact, it's just a typical day on his circuit of schools.

The seven-year Army veteran who has served in Iraq travels around Central Vermont as part of his most recent assignment at the recruiting station in Barre. Pedersen said he will answer questions for students who approach him but emphasized that it's not his job to force anyone into a conversation.

"I'm not chasing people down," he said. "If they're not interested, they won't stop."

Last week, Abbott Hughlett, a Harwood student who said he plans on joining the Army after he graduates in January, also manned the table.

Army personnel typically visit the school every few months, said Harwood Union principal Duane Pierson. They call the school and ask to have their representatives come to the building in the same way colleges and universities make arrangements to have their personnel visit the school.

There isn't a set schedule for the year, he said, because the Army's schedule changes, as does the school's. The school and the recruiting station typically set a date for visits on a month-by-month basis.

He said he has fielded some calls from parents concerned about military representatives at the school, noting that policies for the visits are in place.

At a meeting earlier this year, Pierson said Army officials made clear they are not in the building to sign students up for service on school grounds, an important point for the principal.

"I don't want them recruiting," he said. "Schools are for information."

At a public school, Pierson said kids should be able to learn about different possibilities available to them after they graduate, a list that includes colleges, universities and trade schools as well as military service.

"It's an option that some of our students find appealing," he said.

But the specter of military personnel setting up shop at the school has some local parents concerned.

Parent Mason Wade said in a letter published recently in <MI>The Valley Reporter<D> that he doesn't think it's right for recruiters to be able to speak to students without a parent's involvement. He notes that the presence of recruiters at school adds to the "intense television and radio advertisements" offering free merchandise for call-ins as well as ads "targeted towards instilling guilt" in the parent if the child is not allowed to enlist.

"These recruiters are professionally trained salespeople who are approaching minors without parental/guardian notification and without the presence of those parents/guardians," he wrote.

"At a minimum, as parents, we should be notified at least a week or two in advance that recruiters will be coming into the school on a specific day," he said.

Military recruiters also have access to students' information through the school as part of the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act, although for this a parental notification policy is in place.

Pierson said the school sends a form home to parents of 10th, 11th, and 12th grade students at the beginning of the year. They are asked to check 'yes' or 'no' to whether or not they want their children's information given to institutions that may request it.

Unless a student's parents send that form back with a 'yes' response or contact with the parent is otherwise established, information is not released.

"We're not opening the floodgates," Pierson said.

According to the school, only 48 out of 403 students have returned the forms allowing the school to release their names, telephone numbers and addresses.

NCLB, passed in 2002, laid the groundwork for the military's access to student information as well as to students on school grounds.

It requires schools receiving federal aid to "give military recruiters the same access to secondary students as they provide to postsecondary institutions or to potential employers," according to the U.S. Department of Education.

The law also states that schools "must comply with a request by a military recruiter or an institute of higher education" for student information, unless a parent has 'opted out.'

In reality, according to Harwood officials, the only institution that ever asks for such information is the military.

The law has spurred a national debate regarding privacy rights and the current administration's objectives.

In an article published in local and national media, Waterbury Center resident David Goodman called "President Bush's supposed signature education law...the most aggressive military recruitment tool enacted since the draft ended in 1973."

Estimates suggest as many as 37,000 students have opted out of the NCLB requirement, he said.