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Rift over recruiting at public high schools

A Seattle high school bars military solicitation, touching off debate over Iraq war and free speech.

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While most Parent Teacher Student Association meetings might center on finding funding for better math books or the best way to chaperon a school dance, a recent meeting here at Garfield High School grappled with something much larger - the war in Iraq.

The school is perhaps one of the first in the nation to debate and vote against military recruiting on high school campuses - a topic already simmering at the college level. In fact, the Supreme Court recently agreed to decide whether the federal government can withhold funds from colleges that bar military recruiters.

High schools are struggling with a similar issue as the No Child Left Behind Act requires that schools receiving federal funding must release the names of its students to recruiters. Some feel that's an invasion of privacy prompted by a war effort that has largely divided the American public. Others say barring recruiters is an infringement of free speech - and a snub to the military, particularly in a time of war.

Garfield High School took a decisive step last week with a vote of 25 to 5 to adopt a resolution that says "public schools are not a place for military recruiters."

All this comes as recruiters struggle to meet enlistment goals.

Although PTA chapters are supposed to be "nonsectarian and nonpartisan, which means nonpolitical," according to Jenny Sopko, a spokeswoman for the national PTA in Chicago, Garfield's PTSA cochair maintains that its action is "wholly consistent with our mission."

"The mission of the PTA is to protect and defend kids," says Amy Hagopian, a mother of three whose son is a Garfield senior. "It's not just limited to education issues - which explains why the PTA takes positions on kids' health, violence, and other serious issues."

Garfield, with 1,600 students, is one of Seattle's top high schools, routinely producing bumper crops of National Merit Scholars, plus internationally acclaimed student orchestras and jazz bands. It's also racially diverse, with African-American students making up 31 percent of its student population.

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