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Published on Monday, June 28, 2004 by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Peace Activists Plan to Counter Recruiting by Military in Palm Beach Schools
by Prashant Gopal
 
Recruiters pitching military service to high school students tout job training, college scholarships, foreign travel and lifelong friendships.

A Palm Beach County peace group offers a different view: Enlisting in the armed forces isn't like signing with a job placement agency. War can kill you.

That's why peace activists say students who hear from recruiters in school should also expect to hear from them.

"We want to be there to balance that perspective," said Javier del Sol, an activist and professional storyteller with a gray ponytail and a bandana knotted around his head. "The military has money and personnel. But a few people can make a difference."

For now, the ideological battle will play out first in Lake Worth High School, which claims one of the largest JROTC programs in the world, in a town that is a center for counterculture activism.

Through a pilot program this fall, students at Lake Worth High could see peace recruiters in the cafeteria, career fairs, assemblies, classrooms and JROTC classes -- all the places on campus they now see uniformed military representatives. In time, Palm Beach Area Draft Counseling, a Quaker-sponsored anti-war group, says it will seek equal access to all Palm Beach County schools. And they'd like their campaign to spread to Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

Del Sol and Marie Zwicker, who joined the anti-war fight in the 1960s, say they're recruiters for peace. They'll counter claims made by recruiters and distribute information on alternatives to the armed services, such as the Peace Corps and college degrees in diplomacy. And they say they'll tell students of their right to not have personal information shared with representatives of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines.

The pilot peace program appears to be on firm legal footing because of a little-known 1982 U.S. district court ruling granting the peace group, of which Zwicker was a member, the same access to students and the right to hand out literature.

In the decades that followed, peace groups around the nation have won similar cases. But principals continue to resist giving military detractors access to students, said Oskar Castro of the National Youth and Militarism Program, a Quaker group, in Philadelphia. If the Lake Worth High School program moves forward, it could be one of the few programs of its kind, Castro said.

School district officials in Broward and Miami-Dade say they are not aware of any similar anti-military activism in their schools.

Lake Worth principal Ana Meehan said details must be sorted out, but she's open to the idea of letting Palm Beach Area Draft Counseling onto the campus.

"We're looking for a balanced approach," Meehan said. "From what I've seen, veterans and parents are open to all points of view, particularly veterans because they understand what democracy is. We want students to hear a variety of options."

Geoff McKee, principal at Boca Raton High School, said he would prefer that the group focus on alternatives to enlistment and not speak negatively about the military. Many students in his school with relatives who are veterans might be offended, he said.

"I can see how their message could be construed as anti-patriotic, and they would have to be sensitive of that in their presentation and have to put energy into not creating a disruption in order to be welcome on campus," McKee said.

Erin Killian, 18, who graduated this year from the school's JROTC program, said the peace group's campaign is unnecessary.

"The military protects the country and the people in it. We should honor them and not right away say how horrible they are," Killian said. "People should know [war] is dangerous just by knowing about history and growing up in this country."

Sgt. David Holley, an Army recruiter assigned to Lake Worth High School, said del Sol and Zwicker have a right to speak their mind. But he's skeptical of their viewpoint because recruiters can't force anyone to join an all-volunteer military, he said.

"Nobody is going to stop them," Holley said of the peace activists. "But it's really hard for them to know what really goes on in the military unless they have experienced it for themselves."

The battle of ideas at Lake Worth High School may have something to do with Lake Worth itself.

The armed forces recruit heavily in this working-class city with a growing number of immigrants from Guatemala, Haiti and Mexico. The high school's Air Force JROTC, with 475 cadets, claims to be the second largest in the world. But Lake Worth also is the region's counterculture capital, having spawned many recent anti-war, anti-globalization protests.

Del Sol said the military is particularly attractive to poor residents who struggle to find good jobs or money for college and are eager to be accepted as Americans. For foreign nationals, the Department of Defense offers an expedited citizenship program for those who enlist.

Holley tries to visit the school cafeteria once a week to distribute fliers, answer questions and meet potential recruits. He's also invited to make his pitch to the JROTC class and the school's magnet programs in medicine, carpentry, plumbing and masonry, and criminal justice.

One of Holley's most useful recruiting tools is the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, a test administered by the Department of Defense. The test, given in 14,000 schools around South Florida and the nation, is either mandatory or voluntary, depending on the school.

In South Florida districts, the tests are given at the principal's discretion.

At North Miami Beach's Dr. Michael M. Krop Senior High School, for example, juniors who don't take the PSAT are required to take the test. At Coral Springs High, Principal Anne Lynch said the tests are voluntary, but students are encouraged to take it.

The military requires the test for prospective recruits, using it to find and place cadets. The schools, which get the test at no cost, use the information to gauge abilities.

In some schools, students sign up to take the test. In other schools, all juniors or seniors are expected to take it. Principals often aren't informed by the military that they can opt out of sharing test scores and student contact with the recruiters who administer the test.

In Lake Worth High School, the test is given to all 11th-graders, though students can decline to take it. The scores, along with student grades and home contact information, are provided to military recruiters.

Once the peace group is allowed into the school, Zwicker said, it would begin to monitor the test to make certain students are told that it's voluntary.

The group also intends to inform students that they can fill out a form telling the school that they don't want any personal information shared with recruiters. High schools must comply with the requirement, part of the 2001 No Child Left Behind act, or risk losing federal grants. Students and parents can opt out by submitting a written request to the school district asking that the information not be shared.

The No Child Left Behind act also guarantees that military recruiters have as much as access to schools as college and company recruiters.

Jean Schurr, who has had three children go through Lake Worth High School, said she's used to getting calls and brochures from recruiters. She'd like to keep them out of the schools.

"I feel the same way about anything. It bothers me that people are handing out Bibles at school. It's setting things up for handing out information on the devil next," Schurr said. "I don't think you'll ever get recruiters out of the school. So people with an alternative view should definitely have access."

The Palm Beach Area Draft Counseling group has had a history in county schools.

A U.S. federal district court judge ruled in 1982 that the Palm Beach Area Draft Counseling group should have the "same opportunity to distribute pamphlets, literature and related material opposing participation in the military in the same manner military recruiters are permitted to encourage participation in the military."

After the 1982 decision that granted the group equal access, del Sol and a few others began to distribute materials to guidance offices throughout the district. But the campaign ended with the Cold War in the late 1980s.

The war in Iraq and a proposal in Congress to re-establish the draft spurred the two Lake Worth residents to action. Del Sol said he expects to have more help this time. Finding volunteers has become easier because of a flood of young activists who have moved to Lake Worth in recent years.

Students aren't getting the whole story about joining the military in a time of war, said Zwicker, who was one of the plaintiffs in the 1982 case.

Military brochures have been sanitized, she said. They no longer show combat. And they focus on glamorous jobs, not the ones on the frontlines, she said.

"We need to be there," Zwicker said. "And all the teachers need to be aware that if they invite a military recruiter to a classroom to give a talk about why it's good to be in the military, according to the agreement, they need to be inviting us as well."

Copyright 2004, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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