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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, September 14, 2006

Defending freedom and protecting liberty should begin at home, here in America

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

— Jean Baptiste Alphonse Karr, Les Guêpes, 1849

The French have a saying: The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Three years ago, we wrote that serving our country was a noble thing. Many young people are eager to do so. Some join the Peace Corps, helping others around the world; some join Americorps, helping those at home. Others join a branch of the military. Some make contributions as individuals, without joining any group at all.

One of the beauties of a democracy is that it offers freedom of choice. A patriot in a democracy, unlike in a totalitarian regime, is one who loves and supports his or her country as he or she sees fit; we don’t have to march in lockstep and follow the party in power or answer to any one ideal.

Young men and young women in high school are often casting about for direction as they learn new things and shape plans for their future.

We received a letter this week from a Voorheesville resident warning teens against joining the military. He writes that "ever since 9/11, there has been tremendous pressure on young people once again to get involved with their government’s ill-advised foreign policy, and there has been a brutally one-sided campaign, instigated by that same dubious administration, to brand all people who do not support it as anti-American and unsupportive of our troops."

We have another letter from a woman who grew up in Guilderland Center asking, "Parents and students, do you know that the schools are required to turn over high-school-age students’ demographics to the military recruiters in order to participate with the No Child Left Behind Act"

We see no reason that funding for education, for learning, should be tied to releasing student information — the names and addresses and phone numbers of high school juniors and seniors — to military recruiters. But it is.

Three years ago, we wrote about how local high schools, like those across the country, were preparing lists of students for recruiters. Such lists are required by the No Child Left Behind Act, sweeping federal education legislation that went into effect in January of 2002.

Back then, as now, all three of our local school districts — Guilderland, Voorheesville, and Berne-Knox-Westerlo — by administrative decision, were using an opt-out system, allowing parents of students or students themselves to request that information not be released to recruiters.

Fewer than a tenth of Guilderland students and about a quarter of BKW students opt out, according to the superintendents at those schools. At Voorheesville, families of the high school’s 441 students are sent a letter about blanket withholding of information, including, for example, having a student’s picture appear in the yearbook; so far this year, only nine families have chosen that route, said Principal Mark Diefendorf. Once those families are called, he surmises, they will specify that information not be given to outside agencies, like recruiters.

Prior to the federal act, military recruiters at Voorheesville’s high school got information from sign-up lists — an opt-in procedure — which would result in interested students being approached. Support for the military has increased since the terrorists’ attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 and the district’s policy towards military recruitment reflects that, Diefendorf said earlier.

The list for recruiters is longer, of course, if it depends on students or their parents requesting removal. As we wrote three years ago, we don’t see how duty to one’s country is furthered by giving recruiters the names of people who were merely too lazy or ill-informed to return paperwork.

We wrote, too, about concerns the New York Civil Liberties Union had that the opt-out approach is usurping privacy rights of students and that recruiters can be aggressive with 16- and 17-year-olds, unsure of what to do with their lives, who are vulnerable to recruiters’ claims.

At that time, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of Education Rod Paige wrote a letter to school officials, stating, "For more than 25 years, the Armed Forces of our Nation have been staffed entirely by volunteers. The All-Volunteer Force has come to represent American resolve to defend freedom and protect liberty around the world. Sustaining that heritage requires the active support of public institutions...."

Why, we wondered, couldn’t all-volunteer forces rely on interested parents and students who sought them" As citizens, we pay for the armed forces’ publicity campaigns. Certainly information on the military and what it has to offer is readily available to anyone who wants it. People should be free to choose, not coerced.

Defending freedom and protecting liberty should begin at home.

One Capital Region school district, Averill Park, stood out as a beacon three years ago, using an opt-in policy. First of all, and most importantly, the school board made the decision about whether an opt-out or opt-in approach would be used.

"Our board of education makes policy decisions," Josephine Moccia, who was then the assistant superintendent, told us three years ago. "Administrators then implement those policies."

The school board spent several meetings deliberating after parents raised concerns about an opt-out policy. The board ultimately chose an opt-in policy. "We looked at what the law actually says and we decided this was the better way," said Moccia. "We understand the military still has a right to get names and addresses. This way, they get the names and addresses of those students who are interested."

Moccia said then that the district had no complaints from parents, from students, or from military recruiters about the opt-in policy. The recruiters were satisfied, she said, with the names of interested students.

With this system, no privacy rights were violated, no children were left in a vulnerable spot, and recruiters could call on students who were genuinely interested.

The law hasn’t changed in the last three years. But opinions about it have. "By law, you have to use the opt out," the Voorheesville superintendent told us earlier this month.

Even Averill Park has switched to the opt-out procedure. Moccia, who is now the superintendent, told us, "We were instructed we were not in compliance with No Child Left Behind...It went back to the board."

Of Averill Park being a beacon for civil liberties, Moccia said, "We were hoping to be. But we were told, if you don’t comply, you don’t receive federal or state funding. That threat was too great."

A lot of attorneys for schools are advising districts they are putting themselves at risk by using opt-in policies, said Melanie Trimble, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. "We’re trying to show them we would win the case," she told us this week.

The Civil Liberties Union continues to have concerns about privacy rights and recruiting tactics. "We’ve heard of very strong-armed techniques used by military recruiters," Trimble told us this week.

Should access to student names for military recruitment come down to a threat that schools won’t get money for education" What exactly is this teaching our students"

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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