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Errors Typographical and Otherwise

By Frank Gruber

Matters took a confusing turn when I tried to track down the origins of the school district's policy not to release student directory information to military recruiters that the district could give to other prospective employers.

This was the policy the Board of Education purportedly changed at its September 18 meeting, in response to the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act. ("High Schools to Open Student Rolls to Military," Sept. 23, 2003)

I say "purportedly" because it turns out the policy may not have existed.

According to the district's "policy detail" setting forth the old policy, the district adopted it in 1998. However, when I asked former superintendent of schools Neil Schmidt about this, he had no recollection of the board passing it during his tenure, which started in 1992.

Then I talked to a long-time district employee who told me she thought the whole thing was a typographical error -- that the district's policy was in fact to allow military representatives access to student information. This was what, she informed me, state law required.

Sure enough, I looked up Education Code Section 49073.5, which is referenced in the policy detail, and which requires, when school districts adopt policies regarding the release of student information, that they "not purposefully exclude any military services representative from access to that information."

But then I heard from former school board member Patricia Hoffman. She informed me that the board adopted, back in 1990 or 1991, before Schmidt was hired, a policy forbidding the district to give student information to the military. According to Hoffman, the reason was that the district was giving student rosters to the military, and only to the military, without the consent of parents, and that the board considered this a violation of privacy rights.

It appears that section 49073.5 became operative in 1997. What I suspect happened is that Section 49073.5 was the impetus for the board to change the no-disclosure policy, and that's why the policy the board was looking at on September 18 was dated 1998. Bizarre as it would be, it seems most likely that at some point after that there was a typo that changed the meaning of the policy, because otherwise it would directly conflict with state law.

* * *

Regardless whether the school board actually needed to do anything to bring district policies on disclosure in line with the No Child Left Behind Act, given the board's action, we now know that:

* School Board Member Julia Brownley believes that the only reason the district should allow military representatives the same rights to student information that other prospective employers have is to get federal dollars.

* School Board Member Oscar de la Torre thinks that parents should be outraged because the federal requirement represents an abuse of privacy targeted at "low-income youth and youth of color."

* That when the school board considered its obligation to comply with the federal requirement, the only issue any of them raised was how students could shield their information from the military, and that no board member ventured the opinion that perhaps as a prospective employer the military might offer our graduates at least as much opportunity as, say, McDonalds or Wal Mart, employers that could get the information.

* That when the student representative on the board -- who reported in solemn tones that he had received a letter from a military recruiter -- expressed his concern that most students would not bother to go to the school office to submit the form to remove their information from the directory, and that therefore the schools should provide the forms at registration, not one member of the school board told him that to serve one's country might be at least as honorable as attending college.

My blood simmers.

I won't defend in any way the political venality of the Bush administration's education policy, as embodied in the No Child Left Behind Act, but there is nothing unreasonable about its section 9528, the section dealing with military recruitment.

This is what section 9528 does, and all that it does:

* It says schools receiving aid must give military recruiters and institutions of higher education access to student information.

* However, it not only says that students or parents can request that student information not be divulged without parental consent, but in fact requires schools to inform parents that they have this right to opt out.

* It says that schools shall give military recruiters only the same access to students as is given to post-secondary educational institutions and prospective employers.

* It provides exceptions for schools that have religious objections to military service.

So section 9528 is hardly the reinstitution of the draft, not that that might not be a bad idea considering the demographics of the military.

* * *

I thought that one lesson lefties all decided we had learned from Vietnam and the treatment of our soldiers and veterans then was that it was horrible mistake, political, but more important, moral, to attack the institution and personnel of the military as opposed to the politicians in charge.

If you fear America is an imperial power, the place to do something about it is the polling station, not the recruiting station.

I may not like how the Bush administration is using our military in Iraq, but they're using the same military that stopped ethnic cleansing in the Balkans.

It's also silly to think that not having a military will achieve peace. We largely disbanded our army in the thirties, and that didn't stop World War 2. In fact it had the opposite effect, as Hitler knew we couldn't offer the British much assistance and the Japanese made a calculated gamble to try to win before we could
re-arm.

There's a quote I like from Martin Luther King, Jr. He was writing about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a pacifist who joined the armed resistance against Hitler. King said that if your enemy has a conscience, you can follow Gandhi. If he doesn't have a conscience, you need to follow Bonhoeffer.

We have a volunteer army that relies on recruitment, but so long as it is a "citizen army" and not a "professional army" there will be some brake on its misuse by politicians, as is now apparent every day as the nation expresses its concern for the future of our troops in Iraq.

If it's a problem that the military disproportionately attracts, in de la Torre's words, "low income youth and youth of color," then the solution is to give the disadvantaged more alternatives, or give the advantaged more reasons to join the military.

But it is no solution to inequality to deny the disadvantaged access to one institution that has shown that affirmative action and meritocracy are not mutually exclusive.

One doesn't have to join the military to be patriotic, but there is nothing embarrassing about doing so, as some on the school board implied when they pined for an old policy that fortunately, for the reputation of the school board, appears to have existed only as a typo.

Too bad the board's most recent mistakes cannot be so easily blamed on happenstance.
The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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