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The few, the proud and the uninvited

• Members of Recruiter Watch PDX ask for same access to schools as the military receives
by:  JIM CLARK, John Grueschow volunteers for Recruiter Watch, which tracks the military presence in Portland’s public schools and wants equal access to students to present alternatives to enlisting.

At one Portland public high school recently, uniformed U.S. Army recruiters helped lead a gym class and then distributed recruitment material to students afterward.

At other local schools, military recruiters have been known to mix with students in the hallways and cafeterias at will, give away free iPods and other prizes, and offer to buy teachers pizza and trips to tour the U.S. naval base in San Diego.

Military recruiters say they're allowed by federal law to do so. But Recruiter Watch PDX, a three-year-old peace group comprising about a half-dozen volunteers, complains that many of these tactics are against the district's 2006 policy on military recruitment.

'The school board is willing to deal with the eye-opening (tactics),' said John Grueschow, a Recruiter Watch volunteer who's been tracking the military presence in Portland's schools since 1985.

'But what concerns us is that (recruiters) stop by the schools for one thing and then end up talking to students; they push the boundaries. We would like a very clear and restrictive districtwide policy,' he said.

As sentiment against the Iraq War grows and enlisting young people has become tougher nationwide, many school districts have been struggling to balance the federal right of the recruiters to be in the schools with the privacy rights of their students.

The Portland school board thought it addressed the issue in 2006, when it created a policy about military recruiting in response to peace groups' accusations that the military was trying to sign up students with autism and other disabilities.

Now the issue has surfaced again. Recruiter Watch noted its concerns in a recent letter to Portland Public Schools, asking for equal access to high school campuses to present alternative options to enlisting in the military.

'Some promise $50,000 for college,' Grueschow said. 'They're not going to get that. Sometimes they're offering huge bonuses to sign up, which equates to bribery.

Gary Stauffer, an Army spokesman based in Northeast Portland, said he doesn't agree with what the counter-recruiters are doing, but the Army 'respect(s) their right to peacefully assemble.'

That said, he added: 'Our recruiters, their goal is to reach as many potential candidates as they can and explain to them what the Army has to offer.

And as far as promises about college money or job training, Stauffer said: 'Everything the Army offers is guaranteed in writing. As long as that young person has an enlistment contract in front of them, they know what they're getting.'

Stauffer said about five or so recruiters visit the Portland public high schools once or twice each year, during career fairs.

'The access to Portland Public Schools is so limited, it's so difficult,' Stauffer said. 'Recruiters … have to rely on other means, like using the telephone, going out into public, meeting kids at events, riding the MAX.' Stauffer said the Army often sets up outside Trail Blazer and Portland Beavers games, and outside concerts like the annual summer Rockfest.

They also have a program that provides refreshments - such as soft drinks and pizza - to teachers who listen to the Army's spiel on their in-service training days when students are out of the building, he said.

While the Portland district has its 2006 policy, which specifically prohibits bringing food into schools, Stauffer said he doesn't think this happens in Portland, but he can't be sure.

Access to the local schools varies widely, he said. For example, he said Centennial High School in Gresham is much more lenient in its policy, allowing recruiters access once or twice a month, as well as a regular presence in their career center.

Federal act opened the door

Jollee Patterson, the Portland district's legal counsel, knows recruiters' access is a recurring concern. She said she continually reminds principals and teachers about the 2006 policy. She admits it is hard to enforce.

'Recruiters are very aggressive and creative in their techniques,' she said. 'I frequently get calls from principals and e-mails about recruiters there. … When I hear about violations, I follow up. No pun intended, but I think all districts are finding military recruiters to be a moving target, and we have to catch up with their techniques.'

The Portland district began allowing military recruiters on campus in 2002 when it was forced to by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which required that the military be given the same access to schools as college recruiters and prospective employers.

The act also gave recruiters the right to obtain the names, phone numbers and addresses of high school juniors and seniors - or risk a loss of federal funding.

This was a big change for Portland, which had banned military recruiters from schools before 2002 because of its 'Don't ask, don't tell' rule.

Patterson said that since 2002, the district has tried to make it easy for students and parents to opt out of releasing their personal information; the opt-out rate now is well over 50 percent.

Dissent could run the gamut

The district hasn't yet formally responded to Recruiter Watch's request for equal access. But Patterson tipped her hand last Thursday at a board subcommittee meeting, saying she believed granting equal access wouldn't be such a good idea because it would lead to a slippery First Amendment slope.

First Amendment issues are tricky in schools, which are considered a 'nonpublic forum' and defined by the nonprofit First Amendment Center as a place such as a school, jail or hospital where 'the government's regulations on speech do not have to meet strict scrutiny. Rather, they must be reasonable and viewpoint-neutral.'

Patterson noted that districts may designate their schools to be a 'limited public forum,' defined as an 'opportunity for one or more 'noncurriculum-related student groups' to meet on school premises during noninstructional time.'

She said: 'If we open a limited public forum for speech for groups that oppose (the war), we'd be opening ourselves up for other people to come in and comment on colleges,' such as a group that wanted to protest Mormonism when Brigham Young University visited, for example.

She also said other interest groups such as retired veterans and pro-military groups would have to be allowed in.

With citizens of so many divergent opinions potentially on campus at once, 'it creates a management issue for the school,' she said.

Recruiter Watch volunteers balk at this rationale, saying they don't see this happening. Currently, Grueschow and other volunteers stand on the public sidewalks around Portland high schools - where they're legally allowed - every so often to hand out their leaflets and talk to students.

They're also working to produce a bulletin for counselors and teachers that will show alternatives to enlisting.

Portland board members Ruth Adkins and Bobbie Regan and student representative Antoinette Myers also expressed concerns about recruiters' tactics on campus, and urged the district to publicize the existing policy and ability to withhold personal information.

'They are constantly pushing, pushing,' Adkins said. 'To whatever extent we can really make it clear to everybody, saying, 'This is your right.' '

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