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Activists seek to counter military recruiting pitch

Group wants access to L.A. high schools. But the armed forces don't want to share the field.

June 09, 2008|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

Troubled by military recruiting at Los Angeles high schools, activists are seeking equal access to students on campus to provide what they say is unvarnished information about the armed forces and information about nonmilitary careers.

The Coalition Against Militarism in Our Schools, a Southern California group of educators, volunteers and veterans dedicated to promoting nonviolent alternatives to military service, is taking the proposal to the Los Angeles Board of Education, saying it is vital that students have the truth about military enlistment. That "truth," however, is subjective: Some view the group's literature as controversial itself.

Recruiters "are marketers. They have a quota, and it's their job to get students to sign up. So just like a car salesman, they're going to say everything they can to get students to sign up," said Arlene Inouye, coordinator of the nonprofit South Pasadena-based group funded by grants and donations.

"The most important thing we want to tell students is that the military enlistment decision is probably one of the -- if not the -- most important decision in their life. It's a really serious matter. They need to hear about some of the realities of what veterans have experienced and what the military enlistment contract actually says."

Some military officials questioned the peace group's motives.

"We are not confident that these groups' intentions are to provide students with opportunities, but rather to spend a great deal of time and effort to provide disinformation that advances their organizations' agenda with little regard to the individual student," said Lt. Col. Jonathan Withington, a Pentagon spokesman, in an e-mail.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law in 2002, requires schools to provide military recruiters with the same access to high schools as colleges and employers, and compels schools to turn over students' names, addresses and phone numbers unless parents opt out.

The U.S. Department of Defense spends $3.5 billion annually on recruitment and enlisted more than 181,000 people for active-duty forces in the 2007 fiscal year and more than 138,000 for the reserves. The Southland is fertile ground: Los Angeles County ranked third in the nation in raw numbers of Army recruits in 2007.

Military recruiters' access varies among schools, with some administrators allowing them to wander the halls chatting with students, work out with the football team, and bring Hummers and sports cars on campus.

Under a pilot proposal, which United Teachers Los Angeles endorsed in April, peace group volunteers would visit 10 to 15 high schools per week and set up a table where they would offer information about enlistment, career alternatives and opting not to have their personal information shared with the military.

In May, Los Angeles Unified School District administrators said they could not unilaterally order high schools to give the group access. Instead, Inouye was urged to meet with principals, assistant principals and guidance counselors.

Inouye will present the proposal to the school board's curriculum and instruction committee Thursday; it could come before the full board in July.

Legal precedent more than two decades old allows counter-recruiters equal access to schools, but in practice, rules vary widely. Some schools have opened their doors to counter-recruiters for years, while others refuse to allow them on campus. But as concerns about recruitment in a time of war have grown, schools in Oxnard, Minneapolis and Pinellas County, Fla., decided this school year to provide equal access to organizations such as Coalition Against Militarism in Schools, Veterans for Peace and others.

In Austin, Texas, Nonmilitary Options for Youth has worked for more than a decade to reach out to student organizations and guidance counselors. Two years ago, the organization, along with student activists, persuaded district officials to restrict recruiters' movements on campuses so they could no longer roam the halls talking to students and to clarify counter-recruiters' access to campus, said Susan Van Haitsma, a leader of the group.

Currently, the group sets up a table at most of the district's dozen high schools about once a semester, distributing "Addicted to War" comic books, holding a poll in which students vote on how the government ought to spend its budget, and bringing in veterans to talk to students about their military experiences. The group is limited by its small budget and the free time of its volunteers, but Van Haitsma said they reach about 500 students annually.

In Los Angeles, access varies greatly depending on the school, Inouye said. Some administrators will not allow such groups on campus and try to restrict them from distributing pamphlets outside school. Others, such as Garfield High School, are more open.

At a career fair at the East Los Angeles high school last month, Inouye's organization was given a table next to the Marines.

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