TAMPA – Public school districts in two Florida counties are refusing to allow members of a peace organization to counter the presence of military recruiters by talking with high school students about options other than joining the service, according to a spokesperson for the group.
"They [the Manatee and Sarasota County School Districts] are saying that we can’t go on their campuses because we aren’t offering any sort of information on post-secondary opportunities," said Don Thompson, co-chairman of the Coalition of Concerned Patriots (CCP), a Florida-based peace group. "But that’s an excuse because we tell the students that the Job Corps and the Peace Corps are possible opportunities for jobs."
"Some of the military recruiters [who visit students on high school campuses] aren’t telling the truth about the ways of the military. We don’t question the existence of the military; we question the duplicity of military recruiters," Thompson, a retired United Methodist minister, told IPS.
Under President George W. Bush’s "No Child Left Behind" law, signed in 2002, public high schools must give military recruiters access to students, including their names, addresses, and telephone numbers.
Parents and students can "opt out" of this requirement by filling out a form, but many are apparently unaware that they have the right to do so.
Numerous attempts by IPS to speak with members of the Manatee County School District were unsuccessful. However, Scott Ferguson, a spokesperson for the Sarasota County School District, argued that, "They [the CCP] are not directly offering job career opportunities."
"The difference is that the military recruiters are offering specific jobs," Ferguson told IPS. "I don’t know if there’s a direct correlation between the rise in unpopularity [of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq] and the number of requests by these [peace] organizations to visit school campuses. There certainly is no groundswell by these organizations to come to our schools."
Deborah Higgins, a spokesperson for the Florida Department of Education, said she was unaware of the controversy.
"This is the first that we’ve heard of this," Higgins told IPS.
The U.S. military is a vital part of Florida’s economy. According to the Florida Defense Alliance (FDA), an organization whose mission, as stated on its Web site, "is to promote [military] base efficiencies and to further military missions in the state, while supporting its military families’ quality of life," there are 24 military installations across the state.
This figure does not include the many more National Guard military units in Florida. A statewide economic analysis done by the FDA in 2002 estimated that military-related activities contributed a total of $21.7 billion to Florida’s economy.
Michael MacPherson, executive director of Veterans for Peace (VFP), which has 7,200 members in 123 active chapters in all 50 states, said, "We believe that the students should have all possible information given to them."
"We want to provide students with the full range of options, and the students listen to us because of our background of having served in the military," MacPherson told IPS.
Responding to a set of e-mail questions, Cynthia Rivers-Womack, a public affairs officer at the U.S. Army Recruiting center in Jacksonville, Fla., said: "Before Army recruiters visit a campus, they make a point to comply with school policy regarding visitors on campus, which generally includes checking in with the front office staff as well as the guidance counselor."
"Visits can range from a table set up near the cafeteria, to a formal classroom presentation, to booths at school events such as football and basketball games. When allowable, Army recruiters have access to a rock climbing wall and laser-shot apparatus that can be set up in conjunction with certain visits to provide simulation of certain aspects of Army training and team building."
"Confrontations between such [peace] groups and recruiters on campuses is highly unlikely since they would not be allowed on school property," she said. "If there is a potential for confrontation in any venue between service members and the protesting public, service members are directed to stay clear of the service area and not to engage in confrontation."
She added that any recruiters who verbally harasses a student who expresses interest in joining the Army but later changes his or her mind "are subject to disciplinary action by their commander."
Compromises have been reached in other Florida school districts. In Pinellas County, the political seat of Clearwater, St. Petersburg, and other cities, about two and a half years ago, members of the Tampa Bay chapter of Veterans for Peace told members of the Pinellas County School Board (PCSB) that they wished to go on the campuses. The request was denied, said Dwight Lawton, a VFP volunteer involved in the matter.
"Eventually, we talked to all of the members of the Pinellas County School Board and we found that some of them were interested in what we had to say," he told IPS.
After several meetings, on Aug. 28 this year, the PCSB passed Policy 6.25, "Accessing High School Students Regarding Postsecondary Opportunities." The last sentence in Clause 1 of Policy 6.25 states that: "Other groups who desire to present an alternative to military service are granted equal access."
"In the end it was very anticlimactic. It passed through," said David Koperski, an attorney for the Pinellas County School District.
There are dozens of counter-recruitment groups operating across the country. Just last week, a group of high school students in Vermont organized a protest against military recruiters at their school. Three were arrested, along with 10 other peace activists.
Grissim Walker, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney in Sarasota County, Fla., who is doing pro bono legal work for the CCP, said the fight for equal access was not over.
"We are always open to negotiations, but one possibility is litigation if no progress can be made in negotiations," he said.