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Parental backlash hits army recruiters

Protests across America at Bush law that gives military access to schools and pupils' files. Stephen Phillips reports

United States

George Bush is facing a parents' revolt against reforms that force schools to grant access to military recruiters.

With the number of US war dead in Iraq creeping past 2,000, schools are being caught in the crossfire between parents demanding that they bar military recruiters and a legal requirement to open their doors to them or lose funding.

Schools have long been a key recruitment ground for the military, but the No Child Left Behind Act - the Bush administration's sweeping 2002 education law - made it compulsory for heads to pass student information to recruiters, unless parents object, and grant them access to schools.

Last Tuesday, 500 to 600 Minneapolis students and an estimated 300 in Seattle held rallies as part of a national day of pupil protests at the laws.

Earlier this week, San Francisco voters went to the polls in a ballot measure, to call on leaders there to "oppose military recruiters' access to... schools".

Civil liberties and parent groups in states including Maryland, Missouri, Rhode Island and New Mexico are lobbying local school chiefs to inform parents of their opt-out rights.

The National Parent Teacher Association has also weighed in recently, calling for the legislation to be changed so that parents would have to opt in for recruiters to see student data.

In September, Seattle joined a small but growing band of education authorities in granting groups opposing military recruitment "equal time"

with recruiters.

Amy Hagopian, president of Seattle's Garfield high school PTA, which recently issued a proclamation opposing army recruitment in schools, said:

"Students are too young. The military's a permanent, binding commitment from which they cannot extricate themselves."

Parent and student activists also complain of the military using hard-sell tactics on students, making false promises and unduly targeting poor schools serving minorities to meet enlistment goals, which it missed in 2004-5 for the first time since 1998-9.

David Golden, head of Seattle's Lynnwood high school, said recruiters were meant to observe strict rules. "They're not supposed to be aggressive about cornering kids, they're required to be passive and address kids when spoken to." But concern was raised in May when a recruiter was caught on hidden camera pressuring a Denver student to falsify academic marks to get into the army and another left an abusive voicemail at a Houston student's home.

Such incidents prompted the army to call a day's time-out to "refocus on recruiting with integrity", according to Douglas Smith, of the US army recruitment command in Kentucky.

The army fielded 834 complaints of recruitment "impropriety" in 2004-5, and had uncovered 84 instances of overzealous salesmanship and sharp tactics.

A recent survey by the non-partisan National Priorities Project found the 20 top military recruitment regions were all poorer than average and black and Hispanic students were disproportionately represented among recruits.

Mr Golden said recruitment scarcely raised eyebrows before the Iraq War.

But, "it has a different meaning once people (could) really be put in harm's way".

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