Sam Diener, editor of Peacework Magazine, muses on global thought and local action. He will also highlight the online musings of the authors of Peacework Magazine. Please read the guidelines of Peacework's blogs and forums to participate in the discussion.
The No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 (NCLB) required schools to hand over identifying student information to military recruiters. Military recruiters routinely use these lists to try to meet their quota, known as their "mission," by making repeated and persistent phone calls to students and family members. And in order to meet these quotas, too many military recruiters lie to students (see a compilation of military recruiters caught lying on tape). There is an opt-out provision of the NCLB which allows parents or students to opt themselves out of this invasion of privacy and attempt to militarize youth, but this provision is widely misunderstood and underutilized as a method for helping to spur student activism.
I know most opt-out periods are over or almost over, but I've been in touch with a few folks in recent weeks who have said they've been having difficulties getting schools to recognize students' rights to opt themselves out of their schools' hand-over of their identifying data to military recruiters. In Hartford in 2005, when students pointed out that the district's form had illegally not included a provision for students to opt themselves out, the opt-out forms were changed and the time-frame in which to sign the forms was extended.
We ran a brief article about this back in October 2005, DoE Rules Students Can Opt-Out Themselves, but to reiterate, the law (No Child Left Behind (115 Stat. 1425 Public Law 107–110—JAN. 8, 2002, section 9528(a)(2) clearly says that "A secondary school student or the parent of the student may request that the student’s name, address, and telephone listing described in paragraph (1) not be released." The Department of Education’s Family Policy Compliance Office confirmed in an email to a member of the Seattle, WA Opt-Out, Walk-Out Coalition in 2005, “we have determined that a school must honor a request made by a student who took the initiative to tell a school not to disclose his or her name, address, & telephone number to military recruiters.”
This means that activists and students don't have to use the official forms if it does not include a space for students to opt themselves out, and it means that activists can work with schools and districts to bring their forms into compliance with this section of the law. I want to point out that even many activist groups (such as Military Free Zone and Leave My Child Alone consistently mischaracterize the rights of students along these lines, for example making up nonexistent restrictions such as the myth that the right of students to opt themselves out only applies to students over 18, when the law clearly says it applies to any secondary school student regardless of age. I have tried to contact these groups numerous times over the years, but they have, unfortunately, not yet corrected their dangerously demobilizing and disempowering disinformation.
I spoke to a peace club at a school that my parents are working with in Cleveland, OH via Cleveland Peace Action a few weeks ago, and the Cleveland form had reverted this year and gave no space for students to opt themselves out. I also talked with a Chelsea, MA activist last week where the high school principal was claiming that only students over 18 could opt themselves out. I'll repeat, the latter claim has no basis in law.
Organizing parents to opt-out students is fine, and has helped raise some awareness, but it is not nearly as potentially important as adult allies helping students organize themselves.
The reason this is so important is that when students can opt themselves out, students organizers can urge their peers to opt-out, and it turns into a wonderful way to get a student peace group started each school year. A few years ago, for example, activists in Hartford, led by students who were survivors of war in Liberia and Sierra Leone (whom I met at a YouthPeace training), even threw a party at the end of the opt-out period for all the students in all the schools in the district who had opted themselves out. There was even friendly rivalry between activist students in the different schools to see who could convince more students to opt out.
If schools have not yet recognized this right of students, it also provides a potential focus for student organizing. Activists can make up their own forms, students can collect them, and then challenge the school administration and district to accept them. If they're not accepted, this illegal action could then serve as a further mobilizing opportunity.
Some have questioned how much opt-out accomplishes, since there are so many other forms of military recruiting to which students are exposed. But the real accomplishment and potential of well-done opt out campaigns is to get parents and students talking about these issues, finding like-minded folks who might want to work with with each other throughout the year to counter militarism, and mobilizing this incipient resistance.
I write this now partially because I hope that activists involved in opt-out can assess their efforts and make plans now to amp up our student organizing efforts next year.
For more information, please see the opt-out page on the NNOMY site (National Network Opposing the Militarization of Youth) but even this page, while it clearly says students have the right to opt themselves out, has some confusing and contradictory language on it that we need to improve.