July 19, 2013

M.D. Harmon: Evidence supports need for bill to ensure recruiter access

State senators passed the measure unanimously, one citing limits in Portland schools since 2005.

We've recently seen a "he-said, she-said" contretemps between Gov. LePage and a number of politicians and school officials over how military recruiters were treated at some Maine high schools when they tried to present service opportunities to students.

But framing the issue primarily as one between the governor and others downplays the fact the complaints originated with recruiters for the Maine National Guard, where at least a half-dozen soldiers told their superiors their access to students was unduly restricted at several schools. (The schools named by the recruiters have denied any restrictions exist.)

And framing it as a partisan battle ignores the additional fact that a bill filed in the Legislature to address the issue was supported unanimously in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, even told a radio station this week that he had contacted Portland schools about the issue and supported the bill based on what he found there.

"(School officials) did talk about the policies here in Portland, and that is why, one of the reasons why, I supported this bill," Alfond reportedly said. "Those are things that I don't really have much control over, but this bill I did, and I voted for it ... My personal experience in the city of Portland made me believe that this bill was necessary ..."

Alfond was referring to policies adopted in 2005 in Portland schools to bar recruiters from high school cafeterias and limit their visits to seven per school year, down from as many as 28 in previous years.

As some have noted, there are both federal laws and Department of Defense regulations that address this issue, and they were passed for a reason.

The Congressional Research Service said in a 2009 report that "These changes were prompted by service complaints regarding the denial of access issue." A footnote cites a newspaper article claiming that as of the year 2000, "Approximately 2,000 public high schools (had) policies that bar military recruiters from one or more services, and high schools barred recruiters more than 19,000 times (in 1999), according to a Pentagon spokeswoman."

The law, which allows students to opt out of being placed on a contact list, was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2006.

As it applies to high schools, the Congressional Research Service said, the law "authorizes DOD to collect and compile directory information pertaining to certain high school students and requires high schools that receive federal financial assistance under the ESEA to provide military recruiters with access to student information and school campuses."

So it understandably became an issue when a senior enlisted soldier in the Maine National Guard, Command Sgt. Maj. Richard L. Hannibal, sent an email May 22 to Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen that said, in part, "Almost all of (northern Maine) schools allow our recruiters full access."

But in southern Maine, that wasn't the case. "That is, we are allowed into the school once, the school announces our visit a few days prior to the set date and (students) are told that if they would like to speak to a recruiter to sign up ... When the recruiter arrives, if any student has signed the roster, we get to meet with that student. If there are no students that signed up by the time we arrive, the school considers that our 1 visit and we are done for the year."

He said some schools do not allow recruiters "to be in uniform (meaning we conduct our visit in civilian attire)," and schools will mail parents a notice "that if you would like your son or daughter removed from the (contact) list prior to this being sent out to the recruiters, please reply to that fact. In the end, when it comes time to send the list out, even if the school has not received a reply from parents, they still remove the name."

So lawmakers submitted L.D. 1503 to buttress recruiter access under state law. However, the bill, which had initially gained bipartisan support, was defeated when 19 House Democrats changed their previous votes to oppose it.

One lawmaker, Rep. Joshua Plante, D-Berwick, said Hannibal's charges "were a lie," a claim that understandably outraged LePage and others around the state.

Hannibal has since been told not to comment on the story, according to Guard spokesman Peter Rogers. However, he added that Guard leaders "have the confidence that the information our recruiters have given us is perfectly accurate."

Most Mainers -- and most Americans -- consider a military enlistment, or a career, an honorable and worthwhile pursuit.

Schools have an easy way to show they agree: Have recruiters in to talk to students who want to see them, and ask TV stations and newspapers to come and photograph the meetings, with principals and superintendents present for the pictures.

Then we'll have proof. 

M.D. Harmon, a retired journalist and military officer, is a free-lance writer and speaker. He can be contacted at:

mdharmoncol@yahoo.com

 

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