February 20, 2009

Rochester school board fights over military recruiting policy

Erica Bryant • staff writer

The Rochester School District has sent a letter to parents that may reverse a 3-year-old "opt-in" policy governing the release of information about high school students to military recruiters.

The topic led to a shouting match between Board of Education members Cynthia Elliott and Willa Powell at a Wednesday meeting where district general counsel Charles Johnson said that the district has been out of compliance with a federal law saying it must provide "directory information" about high school students to military recruiters unless parents opt out by returning a form.

In 2005, the district adopted a policy that said information would not be shared unless parents filled out a form requesting it be shared.

"It's the opposite of what federal law requires," Johnson said, noting that only a handful of parents have sent in forms allowing the district to share their children's information with recruiters, and the military has not been satisfied.

He said an official from the Marine Corps had called the district last week and that continued noncompliance could have consequences in terms of federal funding.

In a January policy committee meeting, committee members Willa Powell and Thomas Brennan voted not to change the policy. Elliott, who is also on the policy committee and voted to amend the policy, wants the issue to be considered by the full board.

Johnson said the district plans to act whether the board changes the policy or not.

In January, the district sent a letter telling parents they had until Feb. 6 to request that their high school children's information be withheld from military recruiters. The information that may be shared includes a student's name, address, phone number, date and place of birth, major field of study, participation in officially recognized activities and sports, dates of attendance, awards received and names of previous schools the student attended.

"If you do not return this completed and signed form by this date, the school district will provide the directory information to military recruiters," the letter reads.

Powell believes that such a move would represent insubordination on the part of Superintendent Jean-Claude Brizard. "His job is to comply with policy as written," she said after the meeting.

Powell, who was involved in the development of the 2005 opt-in policy, said the federal opt-out requirement, part of the No Child Left Behind Act, runs counter to privacy protections in the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. She said the military's stance regarding homosexuals runs counter to a district policy regarding organizations that discriminate, and that an opt-out policy is not sound for the city school district, which has trouble getting parents to turn in forms. "We don't even get good change-of-address (form returns)," she said. "How can we be sure we're supporting parents' intentions?"

She said the district has the database of students' information that it can give to the military in the event that funding is truly threatened.

Elliott said the school district must honor federal law. "In my view, this is not a fight that we should take on," she said. "They're not coming to draft students; they're coming for recruitment." She said students have a right to information about different options.

School board President Malik Evans fought to maintain order at the meeting as Powell interrupted Elliott and the two board members proceeded to shout over each other with their differing opinions. After the meeting, Elliott accused Powell of not having the children's best interests in mind, and Powell responded with an expletive phrase.

Evans said that the board needs to discuss the policy when Brizard is present and that he may call a special meeting just to deal with the issue. "Military recruitment is always a hot topic," he said.

"It's (Brizard's) job to bring to us what it is we're supposed to do."

Gary Pudup, director of the Genesee Valley Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, attended Wednesday's meeting and expressed concern about the potential change.

He said that extensive databases of personal information have been abused in the past and that students deserve privacy protection.

He also said that information about the military is readily available to high school students who are interested in signing up. "Is there any question of how easy it would be to find a recruiter?" he asked.

Members of Rochester Students for a Democratic Society said they plan to speak against the policy change at next Thursday's board meeting.

"It's this dollar bill being dangled in front of lower-class schools," School Without Walls graduate Julia Fairchild said of military recruitment efforts. She believes that the military unfairly targets schools with poorer students. "Students aren't being taught that they're being lied to by recruiters."

Nadine Morch, a student at Ithaca College who also attended the meeting, agreed that the policy should stay the same. "The default should be privacy."

So far, about 100 Rochester School District parents have returned forms requesting that their children's personal information be kept from military recruiters.


-thanks to Ken Braley

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