Uncle Sam Wants...You?
As military recruiters continue targeting students, they’re increasingly trying to win the hearts and minds of educators.
By Cynthia Kopkowski
One of the U.S. Marine Corps’ newest “recruits” is running through the mud on Parris Island, South Carolina—the training depot where nearly 17,000 enlistees submit to a grueling 13-week boot camp each year. A second later, she scrambles up a 20-foot-high rope wall and launches herself over the top. The next morning, Bethany Deckard will tuck her cheek into the cold contours of an M16 and fire multiple rounds to practice “engaging” the enemy. For the Marines, just having Deckard at the depot is a victory. Even though she will never actually become a Marine, she interacts daily with hundreds of students who might. Deckard is a high school teacher, and that makes her one of the military’s most highly sought allies right now.
The Army, Marine Corps, Navy, and Air Force are working overtime to win the attention of teachers and education support professionals in order to reach their ultimate quarry: students. The Bush Administration’s announcement this winter that the Army and Marine Corps must increase their active duty ranks by 92,000 in the next five years means even more pressure on military recruiters to gain access to educators’ classrooms—where they’re not always welcome.
Educators, parents, and other activists are demanding restrictions on recruiters in districts in New York, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Maryland, California, and elsewhere, and polls show the war in Iraq and calls for more troop deployments are opposed by a majority of the public.
While teachers have never been disregarded by the military, the idea of actively wooing them on a day-to-day basis “may have been more energized recently, given the political environment,” acknowledges Jane Arabian, the Department of Defense’s assistant director for enlistment. The Army’s School Recruiting Program Handbook reveals just how closely recruiters are now paying attention to educators—whom it calls “key influencers.” “Ensure an Army presence in all secondary schools,” the manual advises. “School ownership is the goal.” How best to do that? “Be indispensable to school administration, counselors, faculty, and students. Be so helpful and so much a part of the school scene that you are in constant demand, so if anyone has any questions about the military service, they call you first!” (See “By the Book,” page 37.)
Using teachers is “a very clever marketing technique,” says Allen Kanner, a clinical psychologist and researcher whose work in part focuses on military recruiting. In the last few years the military hired private firms, including those that specialize in marketing to children, to learn how to best gain a stronghold in schools, Kanner says. “Teachers are role models, and if they approve of something, then the students believe the whole school system approves of it,” he explains.
It’s the same thing you’ll hear from Curtis Gilroy, the head of recruitment for the Department of Defense. “Teachers are a significant influencer, there’s no question about it,” he says. “We just want the cadre of teachers, regardless of political persuasion or background, to speak about the military objectively.”
So while you may worry that students are tuning you out in homeroom, the Army thinks otherwise. “Before you can expect any type of assistance from school officials or be accepted by students, you must first establish rapport and credibility,” states the Army recruiting handbook. “You must convince [educators] that you have their students’ best interests in mind.”
That’s exactly what the Marines are hoping to do as they put the 80 or so educators from Louisville, Kentucky, and Richmond, Virginia, through their paces at Parris Island. Each year, they bring 12 groups of educators through the all-expenses-paid workshop, at a cost of roughly $57,000 per visit. The Army, Navy, and Air Force host similar programs. “We’re looking at those people on the fence, or more than likely, who are uninformed,” says Parris Island spokesman Lt. Scott Miller. “We’re just trying to inform them. Are we trying to win them? Yeah. We have a quota.” If recruiters successfully target the teachers first, then they have, Miller says, “another foot in the door, so to speak.”
In Tucson, Arizona, Rolande Baker had had enough of the feet in her and her colleagues’ doors. The special education and government teacher successfully lobbied the the Sunnyside School District Governing Board last year to severely curtail recruiters’ access to schools.
Baker was initially rankled by an ever-burgeoning number of recruiters interrupting students’ lunches, coming up to their tables, offering to buy them chips and nachos. After school, she’d see them handing out pencils and bumper stickers. Then the recruiters’ attention turned to Baker and her colleagues.
“They would put slips of paper in our mailboxes that said, ‘How would you like to have a day off from class? Let us come speak to your students,’” she says. “It would make me so angry, I would tear it up into little pieces.”
During the first three weeks of the 2005 school year, recruiters visited her school 38 times, says Baker. During that same period, college recruiters visited three times. Ninety-one percent of students at Sunnyside High are Black or Hispanic, and she believes that made her and her colleagues a particularly attractive target.
“It’s very insidious,” says Arlene Inouye, a speech and language specialist in Los Angeles schools and the coordinator of the Coalition Against Militarism in Our Schools. “It’s become very clear that recruiters want to be an integral part of the school so that people will look at them and their position will not be questioned.”
Becoming an integral part of the schools includes the Educator Workshops on Parris Island, where Bethany Deckard and her colleagues gather for the four-day, behind-the scenes look at recruits’ experience there. Make that somewhat of a behind-the-scenes look.
While workshop participants settle into auditorium seats for a presentation by a gregarious colonel, who speaks about the Marines’ focus on character development, discipline, esprit de corps, and military bearing, a drill instructor a half-mile away is screaming through the grey morning at a recruit. A recruit who, on her 21st day of training, finds herself paralyzed with fear atop a wooden beam perched several feet above the ground. For nearly five minutes she wobbles, knees shaking, turning her stricken, damp face away as her drill instructor screams, “Your tears do nothing for me.”
For most of the educators, the emotional high point of the trip comes when watching two companies ending their training receive the revered Marine Corps pin at an event called the emblem ceremony, and then the next morning, seeing their stirring graduation ceremony. Many teachers wipe tears from their eyes during both ceremonies. Proud “ooh-rahs”—a trademark Marine cry—come from at least five former Marines in their ranks.
“I know kids who would benefit from the discipline and learning about the honor and commitment,” says Victor Smith, a math and special education teacher from Richmond. “Those who haven’t been exposed don’t understand.” Like the rest of the group, he snaps photos throughout the visit and plans to incorporate the experience into his classroom work in the coming weeks. Assistant Principal Donna Buzonas of Newport News, Virginia, says she was “shocked” to see how young the recruits look, but “it makes me proud that they’re instilling the right values in them,” she says. “If [my] kids have questions, I’ll be able to answer them.”
IN MANY DISTRICTS, THE QUESTIONS now revolve around how and where recruiters can operate. In Baker’s school district, recruiters now can come on campus only once a month. They meet only with students who request an appointment, and those meetings must take place in a designated area, not in the halls or classrooms. During annual registration, Sunnyside distributes a card that lets parents opt in on having their child’s contact information sent to the Department of Defense for recruiting purposes. The current No Child Left Behind provisions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act require that to get federal funding, schools must turn over that contact information unless parents opt out. Tucson’s more restrictive opt-in approach is the same one that NEA advocates. In 2005, Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA) introduced the Student Privacy Protection Act, which would amend NCLB to require an opt-in system.
Bethany Deckard wasn’t lobbying to keep recruiters out of her school hallways, but she also wasn’t likely to point students toward a recruiter. “Honestly, I was real leery and probably not encouraging it,” Deckard, an English teacher, confides quietly aboard the bus on the first day of her Parris Island visit. “It’s still hard for me. I was talking to one teacher here and she was saying, ‘I’m excited for my kids,’ and I’m thinking, ‘They could die.’”
By the end of her stay at Parris Island, Deckard’s opinion has evolved. As the bright marching tune of a brass band fills the hangar where graduation is about to begin, she reflects positively on her time on the island. “When I was watching the emblem ceremony yesterday, I just felt so proud to be a part of the United States,” she says. At this, her voice wavers. “I’m so grateful for the sacrifices they make.”
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By the Book
The U.S. Army’s School Recruiting Program Handbook reveals that when it comes to reaching educators and students, little is left to chance. Some excerpts:
"Recruiters must first establish rapport in the schools....Once educators are convinced recruiters have their students’ best interests in mind, the school recruiting program can be effectively implemented.”
“Like the farmer who fails to guard the hen house, we can easily lose our schools and relinquish ownership to the other services if we fail to maintain a strong school recruiting program.”
“Never rely on guidance counselors as the sole center of influence in the school. Cultivate coaches, librarians, administrative staff, and teachers, especially those whose subjects correlate with Army programs.”
“Attend as many school activities as possible. Offer your Army training and experience, your sports and hobby knowledge, etc., as a resource to the school.”
“Try to obtain a schedule of high school faculty meetings....A luncheon presentation of what the Army offers young people will enhance your relationship with the entire school faculty. Start with our shared goals for students of staying in school, off drugs, and out of trouble.”
“Offer your assistance in registration and any other administrative help you can give. Remember: You need all the blueprint information on your high school you can get.”
“Deliver donuts and coffee for the faculty once a month. This will help in scheduling classroom presentations and advise teachers of the many Army opportunities.”