How Peace Activists Can Win Access to Schools Equal to that of Military Recruiters
Rick Jahnkow -
Since the end of the Vietnam War, the US military has been steadily expanding its presence and influence in schools. In light of this, our expectations need to be realistic: reversing the militarization trend and establishing a strong counter-recruitment presence in schools is not something that can be accomplished in a year. It requires a long-term vision and proportionate commitment by groups for the long haul.
Often activists want to demand complete equal access to schools, and when they don't get it, their first impulse is to threaten legal action. Our primary goal, however, should be to reach students with alternative information, not engage in lawsuits. The federal government would like nothing more than the opportunity to take a case that starts out locally and appeal it to a potentially hostile US Supreme Court. Legal action should be considered as a last resort and only after first consulting with other counter-recruitment groups nationally.
In general, it is unwise to make school administrators your first contact point. Principals, superintendents, and school board members are prone to deny us access because of the potential for controversy.
However, school personnel are potential allies. It is imporant to recognize the challenges they face in providing educational services to young people. Minimize confrontational language. By providing a critical perspective about the military we can help educators provide students with a balanced education so students can make up their own minds.
Start by looking for friendly teachers and reaching out to them for classroom presentations, then move on to counselors, career fairs, etc. Establish a track record you can use later to help secure greater opportunities.
In addition to seeking school access, consider approaches to reaching students that are not dependent on official approval. Contact school clubs and student news media. Leaflet at school entrances and provide interested students with materials that they can distribute inside schools themselves. Students have the First Amendment right to speak out on these issues whether our right to equal access has been recognized yet or not (see our brochure, High School Students' Rights: What Every Student Should Know).
Understanding the First Amendment Basis of Equal Access
Some school officials will argue that counter-recruitment groups can be denied access because we are political, whereas the military is merely offering jobs to students. You can preempt this argument by explaining that, according to existing court rulings, military recruiting is inherently a controversial political issue (see the San Diego Committee v. Governing Board of Grossmont Union High School District [790 F.2d 1471 (9th Cir. 1986)] referred to as CARD v. Grossmont).
The Federal Appellate court ruled that once a school has granted recruiters access to students, it has already created a forum on a political issue. The presence of recruiters in a school exposes students to one side of the debate. Counter-recruiters must then be granted equal access to establish balance. The appellate court ruled, "The Board cannot allow the presentation of one side of an issue, but prohibit the presentation of the other side.... Here, the Board permitted mixed political and commercial speech advocating military service, but attempted to bar the same type of speech opposing such service. Accordingly, the Board violated the First Amendment."
When communicating with schools, use language that borrows from the favorable court decisions. A career fair with military recruiters constitutes a forum on the controversial political issue of military service and is not simply a forum on careers. Therefore, you have a right to address the political and practical aspects of enlistment.
Research and documentation is very important. Document details of the military's presence in local schools. Document your own record of classroom presentations. When you communicate with school officials, make sure important requests and answers are put in writing and are sent via certified mail or "return receipt requested."
Promote Credible Alternatives
Besides giving a critical perspective on military recruitment and war, include neutral information about concrete career alternatives, college financial aid resources, and community service opportunities for young people. Whenever possible, use materials translated into non-English languages that are common locally.
Make the development of organizational credibility a part of your strategy. Work in coalition with community groups and solicit key community endorsements. Make sure your overall effort represents and speaks to the concerns of constituencies who are especially affected by recruiting (e.g. low-income communities, people of color, youth, women, etc.). Veterans add credibility to the message.
Gaining access to schools can be a slow process. It may require lots of follow-up work and patience. Realize the limitations of equal access directives issued by school administrators. By themselves, they won't automatically open all the schoolhouse doors, especially in large school systems.
Anticipate having to make follow-up contacts to regularly remind school personnel that we are available to promote nonviolent opportunities for youth. Equal access is a powerful tool. Let's use it.
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Excerpted from the conclusion to the report "Using Equal Access to Counter Militarism in High Schools" by Rick Jahnkow, who works for two San Diego-based antimilitarist organizations, the Project on Youth and Non-Military Opportunities, www.projectyano.org, and the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft, www.comdsd.org.