Student Privacy

By Tim Gnatek
Web Exclusive

studentDenise Holmes, mother of two students at Garfield High School in Seattle, Wash., was preparing dinner for her family one July evening when she heard a knock at the door.

Two navy officers, dressed in full uniform and armed with recruitment brochures, had come to speak with her 16 year-old son, Marcus, about considering military service.

“They were uninvited,” said Ms. Holmes. “Marcus has no interest in the military, he’s never even played with G.I. Joes,” she said.

What most irked Ms. Homes about the calling was that the officers had singled out her son by name and address something she noted as a drastic step-up in pressure from recruiters’ school lunch tables and direct mailings all despite submitting him to a military do-not-contact list at his school in May.

“I signed an opt-out form from school,” she said. “I don’t know how they’re getting that information.”

Schools have become data warehouses for military recruiters looking for eligible candidates. Bound by law to surrender contact information, school administrators have been pushed to comply with providing student lists for recruitment efforts, and families not wishing military contact are having a harder time avoiding their call.

Though school administrators have been unable to fully block the records grab, a rising voice of dissent led by parents and teachers are making the schools a kind of battleground of their own. They are forcing the issue by calling attention to the data collection, informing others how to remove children’s names from military lists, and applying political pressure on policymakers to strengthen their students’ privacy protection.

What has made their struggle all the more difficult is that there is a tangle of procedures to unfurl before names can be removed, which is easily confusing to parents. Schools are required to notify parents of the military list and students’ ability to opt-out under the No Child Left Behind Act, but there is no requirement as to how the message is delivered. Another Department of Defense student record database, collected by the Joint Advertising and Marketing Research and Studies Office, requires no parental notification.

To better inform parents, when school resumes this fall at Garfield High School, the Parent Teacher Association will sponsor an awareness program about the stepped-up military efforts. “We’ll have a table at open house, use an e-mail list, we’ll put a special notice on the front of the form from the PTA, we’ll talk with students about why their parents fill out this form,” said Amy Hagopian, the PTSA chair at Garfield High School. “It will be a campaign.”

In Sonoma, Calif., Sandra Lull, a school board member who pushed for Sonoma Valley High School to revise its methods of alerting parents to the opt-out option, believes a great share of the problem lies with a lack of guidelines for alerting parents to how student marketing data is collected. “The policy isn’t just the issue; it’s the implementation of the policy,” she said.

Ms. Lull said that the No Child Left Behind alert was once squeezed onto the already crowded student emergency cards parents must complete each year. “The average parent needed a magnifying glass to see it,” she said.

In response, the school board revised the alert policy, instead using separate forms with larger type. “Once that happened, the parents’ opting out grew dramatically.”

This year, when classes resume, her high school will go one step further in protecting student information issuing forms that parents can use to suppress release of information under No Child Left Behind and the Defense Department’s database.

To help ensure that parents receive the message during “back to school” night, the school will host a table with information on student record privacy along with tables for school clubs and sports.

“Parents are on the ‘Do Not Call’ registry, and don’t want to be contacted,” she said, referring to the Federal Trade Commission’s program to block telemarketing calls. “They don’t want their kids to be contacted, either.”

This coming school year, Sonoma Valley High School will not act alone. The awareness campaign will be duplicated in other schools across the country this fall, thanks in part to a resolution recently adopted by the National Education Association. The educator’s union will publicize opt-out options among its members, parents and students this year, and also devote lobbying power to changing the federal policy to withhold student information from the military unless parents opt-in to data release.

Rhonda Hanson, the co-chair of the NEA’s Peace and Justice Caucus and a teacher at West Lake High School in Charles County, Md., brought the issue up for adoption at the union’s annual meeting in Los Angeles this July.

“It is a privacy issue,” Ms. Hanson said. “We’re talking about minors and their private information being sent to military recruiters. It makes sense to have a policy that says a parent should affirmatively request that they want military information.”

Ms. Hanson said that an opt-in list would be more fair than the current policy, since children can’t be relied upon to always return school notices home to their parents. “In the last school that I worked in, at one point the children went home with opt-out information for their parents. As teachers, we all know what happens to papers that are sent home they get tossed in the circular file.”

Several school systems across the country tried to adopt this policy themselves, in response to parents’ concerns about their children being contacted at home by military recruiters. Superintendents in the Fairport Central School District in Fairport, NY, as well as in San Francisco and Santa Cruz, Calif., all temporarily refused to submit student records to requesting military authorities. The schools eventually were pressured to reverse their policies when Department of Education and Department of Defense responded with a warning that they cannot withhold student information, and reminded them that schools violating the law could have their federal funding revoked.

As early as 2002, the New York Civil Liberties Union made an appeal to the Chancellor of New York City’s education department regarding the record collection, requesting the city to follow the lead of these schools and adopt a similar policy of releasing student information only after students and parents had agreed in writing.

“We have been very critical of the Department of Education for failing to allow high schools to provide the maximum protection for privacy, while allowing the military a short list of students,” said the NYCLU’s executive director, Donna Lieberman. “While schools have an enormous obligation to protect the records that they keep on students, there’s a lot that parents and students can do, short of checking off the forms, to protect privacy,” she said. “When there is an active campaign to alert students to this stealth provision of the No Child Left Behind Act and it has nothing to do with education the number of students that opt-out skyrockets.”

Nonprofit activist groups have also adopted education campaigns for parents. Megan Matson, Executive Director of Mainstreet Moms Operation Blue, an anti-war organization, formed an initiative called “Leave My Child Alone!” which promotes letter-writing campaigns and opt-out tea parties for high schools to maximize awareness.

“Our position is that minors aren’t prepared to deal with the kind of sophisticated demographics that are being put to work with them,” said Ms. Matson. “They shouldn’t have to guard against military sales pitches.”

Besides the awareness program, the advocacy group, as the national PTA and NEA, promotes support of a new bill, the Student Privacy Protection Act (H.R. 551), written by Democratic Congressmember Mike Honda (D-CA), which would prohibit military recruiters from contacting students under the No Child Left Behind Act unless they specifically requested so.

The proposed amendment has attracted the cosponsorship of 16 legislators, including Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), and Ron Paul (R-TX), as well as the approval of the NEA, the national Parent Teacher Association and other community and youth organizations.

Though the amendment Congressman Honda suggests would reverse the No Child Left Behind recruitment clause, it still would not prohibit recruiters from mining student information through the Department of Defense’s JAMRS database, which can also circumvent schools’ information to cull from sources like state drivers’ license records and commercial marketers’ lists.

“The bill is about making sure that minors who are in high school have their personal information kept private,” said Mr. Honda. “In my book, parents should not have to opt out of the situation. They should opt in to sharing information.”

In April, Congressman Honda’s bill was sent to a House subcommittee, where it awaits futher backing before becoming law. To write to local representatives about Congressman Honda’s bill, find their contact information on the House of Representatives’ Web site. Further information on removing children from military recruiting lists is at the Leave My Child Alone Web site.

Tim Gnatek is a freelance journalist, who has written for The New York Times, The MIT Technology Review, FRONTLINE/World and The San Francisco Chronicle, among others. He is also a new and doting father.

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