by Christopher Dunn and Donna Lieberman — Come this fall, nearly 100,000 New York City high school students may have their names, addresses, and phone numbers delivered to the United States military. In addition, the Department of Defense is compiling a huge database about students as young as 16 that will include all that information plus the students' birth dates, social security numbers, e-mail addresses, and even ethnicities.
The reason for this massive collection of private student information by the military? Recruitment. With a protracted war in Iraq that has seen mounting casualties since President Bush announced "Mission Accomplished" and a shrinking number of adults volunteering for military service, the government has set its sights on a vulnerable group of young people: high school students.
Under little-noticed provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, school districts must produce lists of their students to military recruiters. In addition, recruiters must be given access to schools when others (like colleges or prospective employers) are allowed in. And, as revealed by the military's inclusion of student ethnicity in its master database, minority students are high on the military's agenda.
As a result, New York City high school students can anticipate a lot of contact with recruiters in the coming school year. Recruiters will be ringing door bells, telephoning and e-mailing, and tracking students down in the lunchroom. And, as one might expect from last week's report that the Army is likely to fall short of its recruiting goals this year, recruiters will be under immense pressure to fill the ranks.
Federal law does allow families to block delivery of student information to recruiters by telling their schools they want their information to remain private. The law should be changed, however, to make clear that the military gets information about only those students who "opt-in" by telling schools they want their information shared.
Even under an opt-out scheme, the New York City Department of Education can do more to protect families from unwanted recruiting. Currently, the Department gives students only one opportunity to opt out and that is when the student first enters a high school. For most students, that's in the ninth grade when the student may be only 13 or 14 years old and not paying attention to the military. To fix this, the Department should let students get off the military lists every year.
And rather than simply mailing separate opt-out forms home, the Education Department could include the opt-out option on paperwork the student must return to the school, like the emergency card required of all students. The Department could also distribute in class a form students could sign barring release of their contact information absent written consent from a parent.
Finally, the Education Department must not allow military recruiters to seize control of schools, as recruiter training materials encourage them to do. The right of equal access to schools does not mean recruiters get the weekly visits, tables in lunchrooms, aggressive approaches to students in the halls or classes, or administration of "career" tests that have been reported. And it certainly doesn't include the harassment of students in peace groups that has been reported in other communities.
Whether one supports or opposes the war, New Yorkers can agree that student privacy should be respected and schools should not be a place for abusive recruiting practices.
Dunn is associate legal director and Lieberman the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.