Film Raises Concerns About Military Recruiters' Access to Student Data

July 7, 2008 - 7:23 PM

(CNSNews.com) - A new documentary screened on Capitol Hill this week accused military recruiters and Kansas public school officials of violating students' privacy.

Alexia Welch, a recent graduate of Lawrence High School in Kansas, and senior Sarah Ybarra said they made the 25-minute film to look into how Army recruiters were able to obtain the contact information of high school students.

"In the beginning the military was the focus," Welch said. "But as we interviewed more people, other things started turning up and it also became about policy and privacy."

Welch and Ybarra became curious about student privacy when Welch received a letter in the mail from a military contractor named "Richard" promising her $100 if she enlisted in the Army. Welch said she had never expressed interest in military life and wondered how the Army could have obtained her name and address.

Welch and Ybarra then discovered a little-known provision in the No Child Left Behind Act that ties federal funding to schools' willingness to provide military recruiters with contact information for students.

According to section 9528 of the bill, "each local agency receiving assistance under this Act shall provide, on a request made by military recruiters ... access to secondary school students [sic] names, addresses, and telephone listings."

At Lawrence High School, the school directory - which lists every student's name, gender, phone number, parents' phone number and birthday - is made available to the Army for recruitment purposes, according to the documentary. Other parties can also obtain the directory for just $2.

Section 9528 does provide for students or parents to opt out of releasing this information.

"A secondary school student or the parent of the student may request that the ... [personal details] not be released without prior written parental consent, and the local educational agency or private school shall notify parents of the option to make a request and shall comply with any request," it says.

But at Lawrence High School, opting out of the directory also meant that a student was excluded from the honor roll, the yearbook, and the school newspaper, among other activities, the filmmakers found. Opting out also required obtaining and filling out a form which, according to the documentary, few parents seemed to know about.

According to an informal poll taken by Welch and Ybarra, 65 percent of Lawrence parents were unaware of the information included in the directory or that it was available to third parties for a nominal fee. Eighty-four percent didn't know that opting out of the directory eliminated students from many school activities.

"Schools and parents don't know what to do with this," Welch said. "They're not getting it right because they don't know about it and it's complicated."

Welch and Ybarra also interviewed several students, all of whom said they had no idea that the Army had access to their information. Some also complained of being called frequently by military recruiters.

As a result of the film, Lawrence High School principal Steve Nilhas assigned Welch and Ybarra to design a new form, which allows parents to check either an "opt in" or "opt out" box for releasing their child's contact information. Nilhas is also considering overhauling the student directory or even eliminating it altogether.

The school could not be reached for comment this week. Neither the U.S. Army nor the Army's Lawrence recruiting office would comment on the claims. An anonymous recruiting officer was featured in the film, denouncing the $100 enlistment offer as "bribery" and saying that "just like in life, there are good recruiters and bad recruiters."

But the recruiter also noted that Richard's letter didn't have the official Army seal on it and suggested that "Richard" was an independent contractor.

The screening of the film was hosted by Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), a former public school teacher and principal. He is sponsoring the Student Privacy Protection Act of 2007, which would change the military recruitment provision of No Child Left Behind to an opt-in system rather than an opt-out one.

If the measure became law, military recruiters will receive student contact information "only when schools have previously received the explicit, written consent of parents," according to a press release by Honda's office.

Section 9528 of No Child Left Behind was originally sponsored by Rep. David Vitter (R-La.) as a reaction to complaints from the Pentagon that military recruiters were being denied access to schools.

In a 2002 letter, then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and then Education Secretary Rod Paige said the support of schools in recruitment was "critical to the success of the All-Volunteer Force."

"Student directory information will be used specifically for armed services recruiting purposes and for informing young people of scholarship opportunities," they wrote. "For some of our students, this may be the best opportunity they have to get a college education."

Although Welch in the movie wears a shirt emblazoned with the peace sign, she and Ybarra insisted that their film, called "No Child Left Unrecruited," is not meant to be political or anti-military.

"I think that high school students are in a school to be educated and authority plays a big role in that," said Welch. "And whether authority is questioned when it needs to be or not is an issue."

"It's important to ask questions that aren't being asked. I think that's our main point here," Ybarra added.

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