There's one piece of paper that's getting more attention this year as parents sift through back-to-school packets: The opt-out form - a way to keep family contact information off the list that public schools must make available to military recruiters.
A wide variety of activists - including teens, parents, teachers, lawyers, and clergy - have been mobilizing this summer to draw a clearer line in the sand against the military's access to students:
• Local groups have lobbied school boards to create better forms spelling out families' choices for release of contact information - allowing them, for instance, to give information to colleges but not the military. National PTA, the parent- teacher association, is using its network of 26,000 chapters to spread the word about privacy and opt-out rights.
• In Congress, Rep. Mike Honda (D) of California and more than 50 cosponsors have put forward a bill that would amend the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law to create an opt-in system, so schools would give out contact information only for students who want to hear from recruiters.
• Under the umbrella terms of "truth in recruiting" or "counter-recruiting," community groups have sponsored workshops on everything from the legal details of military contracts to the options for claiming conscientious-objector status. And student activists have been gathering support for their efforts to set up tables in proximity to military recruiters at school to offer alternative information.
Students are indeed leading the charge in some cases, but "unlike Vietnam, I think now much of the push is coming from parents," says Kim Redigan, a teacher in Detroit and a member of Finding Alternatives to Military Enlistment.
"There's really an effort on the part of adults to get the word out to young people that they need to explore carefully what they're told by the military.... It's not to coerce young people to be antiwar, but to help them make well-informed decisions."
It's natural for parents to be concerned about the prospects of their children going off to war, but some observers say counter-recruiters make outrageous claims that unnecessarily stir up fear. One example: the speculation that the gathering of student data - both locally from schools and nationally in a marketing database - could be the first step toward reinstating a draft.
That's simply unfounded, says James Carafano, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. "There is no credible person in the federal government, in the military, or in any academic think tank ... who thinks a draft is practical, makes sense, or is necessary. So it's an irrational fear or intentional fearmongering," he says.
A more immediate point of contention is the degree to which recruiters spell out all the risks and responsibilities when they're making their pitch about educational opportunities and other perks. In school settings, recruiters can capitalize on young people's uncertainties about their future, says Deb Regal, the southeast Michigan coordinator of Military Families Speak Out, one group that participated in a workshop for parents and students this summer. "For some students, enlistment might be a wise choice, but my concern is that ... many of the conversations, the promises made, are not happening when parents or other family members are around," she says.
Ms. Regal's son enlisted in the Marines when he was 21 and is currently in the Middle East. She says he doesn't quibble with what recruiters told him, but he has talked about meeting young enlistees who came in believing that they'd be able to choose their job in the military and where they'd be stationed.
Military recruiters refute the notion that they are misinforming students or leaving parents out of the loop. Eighteen-year-olds can apply to enlist on their own, but anyone under 18 must have parental consent.
"Everything about the enlistment contract has been worked out between them and the Army guidance counselor," says Douglas Smith, spokesman for the US Army Recruiting Command in Fort Knox, Ky. "We work very hard to make sure that the young men or women know exactly what they are enlisting for."
As for access to student contact information, Mr. Smith says, "we realize that not everyone is going to be interested, but we want to at least introduce ourselves to them and start a conversation.... For 32 years we've relied on an all-volunteer force ... [and] a key element in maintaining it is the outreach efforts that we make to high school and college students."
For many schools, this issue is unlikely to surface as a significant controversy. Even before the No Child Left Behind requirement kicked in, 88 percent of high schools were already allowing military recruiters access to student contact information, says Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke, a Department of Defense spokeswoman.
But at schools that have become flash points, it's one more challenge to leaders already feeling pressured by tight budgets and the academic demands spelled out in NCLB.
In Seattle last spring, for instance, the Garfield High Parent Teacher Student Association adopted a resolution stating that public schools are not a place for military recruiters. No public schools have actually prohibited military recruiters, because they would risk losing federal aid, but the symbolic gesture gained national attention.
The Seattle Public Schools had already been considering clarifying its policies for all visiting recruiters, including the military, and it was frustrating to have antiwar activists try to impose their views on what should be a neutral policy, says district spokesman Peter Daniels.
The school board recently released proposed revisions for public comment and will vote on the policy at its next meeting Sept. 7. It spells out, for instance, that recruiting appointments cannot be made with students during class time. It also would let organizations that offer additional information about military service or that counsel alternatives to the military be on campus in the same location and at the same time as military recruiters.
"The school district is not taking any sort of political stand on the war, on the military, pro or con," Mr. Daniels says. "Our main goal is to make sure our kids are in class, getting a good education. Yes, kids need a plan for after high school, and the military is a legitimate option for them, as well as college and other things."
Student groups, on the other hand, have no obligation to be neutral. A chapter of Youth Against War and Racism caused a stir this winter when it set up a counter-recruiting display at Kennedy High School in Bloomington, Minn. The local chapter of the American Legion reportedly threatened to withhold donations if the school allowed these activities to continue (the chapter could not be reached for comment). But after students mounted a national call-in campaign, administrators agreed to allow the students to continue setting up the tables.
"The recruiters showed much less interest in coming to the school after we started 'tabling' against them," says Andrew O'Brien, who's about to start his senior year at Kennedy. His group, which began with just a few students, ended up drawing more than 20 to weekly meetings. Andrew plans to continue manning counter-recruiting tables this year, which will give him more firsthand experience with the role of debate in a democracy.
"A few students are very outspoken about being against what we're doing.... Some kids started to protest the protesters' group," saying it was unpatriotic, he says.
A number of these opponents "just want to yell," he adds, "but some will talk to us. I like it when I can talk to someone who's against what I'm doing."
Families interested in keeping teenagers' names off of contact lists for military recruiters need to take several steps.
While public schools must supply contact information of students to military recruiters, parents (or students 18 and older) have the right to request that personal information not be released under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. Public schools should make an opt-out form available, and many schools set an opt-out deadline in September or October.
Many schools also administer the ASVAB, the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery. Students are not required to participate, but if they do, their information is usually passed along to the military. Parents concerned about this can talk to school administrators, who have various options for restricting recruiters' access to data gathered through this test.
On another front, the Department of Defense maintains a national student database for the purpose of creating marketing campaigns. It compiles information about high school juniors and seniors and some college students from a variety of sources. Students 18 and older in those categories can opt out of this database themselves. If they are minors, parents can do it for them. To do so, send a typewritten request to:
Joint Advertising, Market Research and Studies, "Attention: Opt Out"
4040 North Fairfax Drive, Suite #200
Arlington, VA 22203-1613
Provide the student's full name, street address, city, state, zip code, telephone number, and date of birth. Do not send Social Security numbers.
Finally, keep in mind that information may also be gathered from young people who participate voluntarily in military-sponsored activities such as videogame contests.