Military recruitment in high school

A nationwide controversy over military recruiters' tactics drove about 70 local high school students and other activists into Uptown's streets May 21 to protest such measures.

Bearing brightly colored signs and chanting antiwar verses, they marched down the sidewalk to the Army recruitment station at 129 W. Lake St. Once there, they described unsettling experiences with recruiters in their schools - such as military-led gym classes and accusations that recruiters at South High, 3131 19th Ave. S., used deception to get student information.

The event - organized by Youth Against War and Racism (YAWR), the Socialist Alternative and local high school human rights groups - was precipitated by a national "day off" military officials had called a day earlier because of recruiting abuses.

According to an Army release, "Army Values Stand Down Day" was "a day for the command’s recruiters and staff to get together as teams to refresh themselves on what we do, why we do it and how we do it, and review our policies and procedures."

During that time, the release stated, soldiers would "focus the importance of Army values and recruiting with utmost integrity."

Local Army spokesman Ken Plant said that this was because of all of the bad press about recruiters and that a few ruin it for the rest. Plant said Stand Down Days aren't new, and the event also stresses safety procedures not tied to direct student contact.

The protesters said that the very presence of recruiters in high schools is wrong and predator-like. They called the retraining day a cop-out and "an image thing."

South High freshman Marina Baller of Tangletown attended after receiving an e-mail about the event. "I thought it was important. It affects kids my age. I'm kind of tired of not doing anything," she said.

Matt Timmons, a freshman at Southwest High School, 3414 W. 47th St., said that he was bothered by the goodies, such as key chains and coffee mugs that recruiters gave away to promote the armed service.

Although the protest was sparsely attended, activists got their point across at least to drivers who passed by during the march. Many showed their support by honking horns or signaling with thumbs up while other passersby smiled.

However, the group's arrival at the Army recruiting station was anticlimactic. The office was closed.

Later, a military official said that officers were away for training at Ft. Snelling that day.

A military-led gym class

Many South High students at the protest expressed concern about a recruiter-led gym class.

Last month, a recruiter taught gym classes all day, using a practice obstacle course. While students weren't required to participate, the recruiter directed those who did to fill out waiver forms that stated that the military wouldn't be held responsible for any injuries or damage that happened on the course. In fine print, the forms said that the information would be used for recruiting purposes.

Lyssa Hansen, a South High junior who covered the gym class for the school newspaper the "Southerner," said she participated in the obstacle course and thought it was OK for the recruiter to lead the class, but she disapproved of the "fake" waivers that some students filled out. Most of the students who filled out the forms were under 18 years old, she said.

Mike Jensen, a school English teacher who leads the newspaper class, said, "I am incensed by the tactics that recruiters are using. To have this fun, game-like activity is one thing, but to tie it to recruiting to minors and to not tell them that the information they were providing would be used for recruiting is another. It is immoral what the recruiters did."

However, South Athletics Assistant Tony Stewart defended the gym activity, saying "It was out of the ordinary some kids thought that it was more than what it was. It was just another opportunity to get exercise and motivation. Nobody was obligated to do anything. It was in no way, shape or form, us trying to get kids to join the military."

Army Capt. Valent Bernat, the commander in charge of local recruiting offices, defended the promotional activity. He said that the "rock wall" and other similar activities are usually tied to events. He said he's also led military law classes in some high schools. He said that, typically, recruiters pass out questionnaires to find out who's interested in the military.

"We're not interested in somebody who's not interested. When people say they're not interested, we mark that name off. We don't just say, now do you want to join? We don't do any kind of active recruiting in" high schools.

Regarding the protest, Bernat said, "Everyone's allowed opinions, but I think it's silly. The goal is to educate and see if people are interested. I don't see it as any different than if a business or corporation went in and did the same thing."

Bernat did say that there are recruiter problems that wouldn't be solved in a single "day off" from recruiting to retrain recruiters, but for him, that didn't interfere with the basic idea of establishing a rapport in schools.

Bernat said that during the retraining, "the point was made that certain behavior is unacceptable. We reiterated Army values and responded to the military and American people," he said.

Additionally, he said that prospective enlistees have to jump through "a fair number of hoops" to join. For example, health conditions such as Attention Deficit Disorder disqualifies a candidate, he said.

They must also have proof of a high school diploma (with exceptions for GED accreditation). Misdemeanors that exceed $300 spur an accreditation process.

In the eight months that Bernat has spent at this post, there haven't been any major issues with the region he manages, he said. Admittedly, recruiters are under a lot of pressure to meet quotas, he said. The Army missed its April recruiting goal by 42 percent and the Army Reserve fell 37 percent short, according to Army Recruiting Command figures.

Noted Bernat, "It comes down to the environment of leadership. We have pressure to meet our requirements. Leaders have to acknowledge that, but rules can't be bent."

Recruiters don't visit every high school, Bernat said. He said that the military prioritized those that produced better students with higher academic records, such as South. Additionally, recruiters aren't allowed into some private schools.

He denied that the military targets in-poverty or minority students and called that perception a "misnomer" that was left over from the '60s. Although many enlistees do seek the military as a means to pay for college, (including him) Bernat said, "We get people from all walks of life."

There are other benefits, such as enlistee bonuses of up to $20,000, he said. On average, Minneapolis generates about four to six enlistees per month. One or two are current students or recently graduated students, he said.

School policy trumped

Longtime Minneapolis School Board member Judy Farmer criticized recruiters for smoothly emphasizing the plusher side of things.

"One thing that people are concerned about is that for students who are poor, the college funding is very attractive. I'm not saying it's a bad thing, but it's more serious in wartime," she said.

Farmer said that the Minneapolis School District had a longstanding policy that names and contact information of students under 18 wouldn't be released to military recruiters. Despite pressures - especially in the '80s, from politicians who urged that the information be given to recruiters - "we've always tried to guard our students. We didn't release the information to anyone," she said.

The policy was trumped by the little-known provision of the federal No Child Left Behind Act that says that schools receiving federal funds must supply name and contact information to recruiters - unless parents write a note to principals opposing it. Farmer noted that the law was written before the country was at war.

Farmer said that parents are notified in an information packet they get in the fall, but that the detail may get lost in the mix.

Jensen, the South English teacher, said few parents know they must opt their kids out of the recruitment data stream.

"In my school, there is very little publicity of this release of information. The default value should be that information is not released unless the person indicates an interest," Jensen said.

Farmer said that she and other School Board members talked about making this requirement more public. One solution would be to insert information about it in mailings for report cards.

YAWR, the Socialist Alternative and students plan to petition the Minneapolis School Board to make sure that schools are well stocked with opt-out forms and information about resisting recruiter calls.