Montclair parents say no to military
By Kasi Addison, Star-Ledger Staff, 19 January 2005

Eight out of 10 Montclair parents want their kids to be all they can be. But not if it means the military has access to their high-schoolers' records.

A provision in the No Child Left Behind act, which was signed into law two years ago, requires all schools receiving federal funding to provide basic student biographical information -- phone numbers, addresses, ages -- to military recruiters when asked.

However, parents are allowed to "opt out" and deny anyone, colleges, universities or military personnel, access to their children's information.

A group of Montclair High School students decided their parents should know about the policy in case they wanted to say no when the military came calling. So they started a campaign for their privacy.

Since the legislation went into effect in January 2002, most schools have fallen in line. According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Education, out of the 22,629 public schools affected by the legislation, only 271 are being monitored for compliance issues.

The department does not yet track the number of students whose parents opt not to release the information, said Jim Bradshaw, a spokesman.

Thus far, most school districts around the country have reacted well, said Col. Joseph Richard, a spokesman for Office of the Secretary of Defense.

"Frankly, we haven't seen any mass protests or complaints about the provision," he said.

Montclair is an exception.

Two years ago, students launched the group OYE OYE -- Open Your Eyes Open Your Eyes -- and their efforts led the district to create and publicize a policy about releasing student information to the military, as well as colleges and universities.

This fall, of the 1,937 students at Montclair High School, 1,628 declined to release their records to the military.

"If we have to sign a permission slip to go on trips, we should certainly have to sign something in order to let our information out," said junior Alissa Cherry, who was active in the campaign.

Though New Jersey districts are required to send information about opting out home, Montclair's policy seemed unique, said Jon Zlock, a state Department of Education spokesman.

The district only releases information for students in the 11th and 12th grades, but all parents at the high school are sent written notification about the release of information twice a year. Students must return the forms in order to register for classes.

"It is an issue of privacy," said Elizabeth Lipschultz, another student activist.

Cherry's mother, Andrea, was furious when she found out the district was releasing her child's information without her express consent.

"Why is money for the education of children tied in any way to giving our information to the government?" she said. "If you are going to give us money is one thing, but trying to recruit these kids ... "

Richard said the new policy has leveled the playing field for military recruiters, allowing them access to the same information colleges, universities and private businesses have had for years.

"It's a matter of fairness," he said. "Many kids may not be inclined to go to college and are looking for other opportunities after high school. We try to provide information to everyone."

Since the legislation passed, Richard said, the armed forces have repeatedly exceeded their recruiting objectives. He also said that just because parents opt out of allowing schools to release their children's information, that doesn't mean recruiters still won't call.

"If parents opt out, that only applies to information received from the school," he said. "Students can respond to Internet and magazine ads. We get information a number of ways."

Which isn't a problem in some districts.

At one Paterson school, out of nearly 2,000 students, only one parent opted out, and the same was true in Elizabeth, said Richard Smutek, an assistant to the school superintendent.

"We notified the parents in a student handbook and a calendar that goes home every year," he said. "Few decide to opt out. It hasn't been a major issue."

But Alissa Cherry and Lipschultz hope other students will start to pay attention. They are perfecting the policy with the hope it will one day be used throughout the state.

"We are not against the military at all," Cherry said. "If a student wants to go, that is their decision. We are just giving them the option of whether they want their information out there."

Kasi Addison can be reached at (973) 392-4154 or kaddison@starled