Sunday, August 17, 2008

Countering recruitment in Los Angeles

by Danny Brown
Published in the Easy Reader, South Bay's Hometown News on August 14, 2008

Paul Wicker of Manhattan Beach, with the support of local high school students and civic activists, is protesting the United States military’s recruitment of high school students.

Nearly a year ago, Wicker approached the Manhattan Beach Unified School District urging it to limit the armed forces recruitment efforts at Mira Costa High School. As part of his protest, Wicker urged the Manhattan Beach Unified School District to make it more difficult for the military to collect information on students. Previously the school had an opt-in program where students could choose to send their information to the military, but after the military complained, it changed to an opt-out form.

Wicker soon discovered there wasn’t a strong armed-forces recruitment presence in the Manhattan Beach school district. “Recruiters don’t come to the campus much on account of the economics of the area,” Wicker said. “They’re trying to coerce poorer kids into fighting a war that has so little popular support that they are having trouble finding people to sign-up for it.”

On a recent afternoon, he stood outside Manuel Arts High School in Los Angeles with a cardboard sign around his neck that read, “Resist don’t enlist,” and handed out pamphlets in both English and Spanish with a picture of a soldier dancing with a skeleton.

Wicker is a member of the Coalition Against Militarism in Our Schools (CAMS – not to be confused with the Cal State Dominguez Hills’ California Academy of Math and Science). His son came home from fighting in the 1991 Gulf War a changed person, he said.“It makes you different,” Wicker said. “You see carnage and sometimes have to make decisions like, do you listen to your commanding officer and not stop driving a vehicle even though a 5-year-old girl is in the road, or do you swerve and risk the life of all the soldiers you’re transporting? It stays with you.”

Wicker began looking for reasons to justify his son’s exploits overseas and learned about the complex history of America’s relationship with Saddam Hussein and Iraq, leading up to Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. When the second Iraq invasion by the United States took place in 2003, he protested against the war and joined CAMS. “Students should have the right to hear both sides of a recruiter’s proposition before making a decision to commit themselves to the armed forces and put their lives on the line,” Wicker said. “The schools we go to are letting recruiters in to convince kids that they should sign up to fight, but not letting us in to convince kids to stay in school and pursue an education.”

The passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002 gave military recruiters access to public high schools and student information. Since then Los Angeles teachers and school officials have seen an aggressive increase in the armed forces’ effort to recruit students. On July 8, CAMS representatives addressed the Los Angeles Unified Board of Education about this situation.“They are on our campus nearly every day,” said Jefferson High School Teacher’s Assistant Tanya Selig to the board. “The military recruiters outnumber the career fair recruiters 5 to 2.”

Ulis William, the former president of Compton College and the leader of last week’s information campaign outside of Manuel Arts High School, said the armed forces recruiters prey on children attending lower income schools. “They know these kids feel they have limited options,” he said. “You won’t find many [Junior Reserved Officer Training Camp] programs in the public schools west of Fairfax.”

The economic disparity of military enlistment also includes a racial gap. According to the National Priorities Project (a nonprofit research organization that analyzes federal data) 70 percent of Black recruits, 64 percent of Hispanic recruits and 57 percent of White recruits come from neighborhoods at or below the U.S. median household income.“ The military is at our school almost every day, but I thought it was like this everywhere,” said Marisol Melgar, 17, from Manual Arts High School, who was reading over one of CAMS’ brochures last week. “They stop us between classes and at lunch and tell us we can make something of ourselves if we join.”

To level the playing field CAMS asked the LAUSD to grant them equal access to schools. Armed with a proposal adopted by the United Teachers of Los Angeles, the group wants to place self-funded military counselors, veterans and community volunteers as Military Alternative Advocates at 10 to 15 high schools to present the realities of an enlistment contract and present students with alternatives.

“The teachers have been very receptive and some principals have even begun to give us access on an individual basis,” said William’s wife and fellow activist Sandra Williams. “However, many schools seem afraid that if they restrict recruiters or allow us to come in and debate them, they might jeopardize their federal funding.”

[Nonmilitary Options editor's note: Allowing representatives of groups like CAMS and Nonmilitary Options for Youth into schools does not jeopardize schools' federal funding. In fact, court cases have upheld "equal access" to those who present alternative views about military enlistment in schools. Our Austin (Texas) public school district policy, noted in the previous blog post, upholds equal access to Nonmilitary Options for Youth.]

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