Should parents have the right to choose to protect a child from being targeted by military recruiters in school? Is it an inherent part of public school education to be pressured to sign an irrevocable contract and join the U.S. armed forces?

Today, military recruiters have unprecedented access to public schools. The little-known Section 9528 of the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 grants the Pentagon access to directories of all public high schools (supplying them with student names, addresses and phone numbers) to facilitate contact for military service recruitment.

A student or parent wishing to protect privacy must actively contact the school to opt out and protect their personal information. In some districts, it can be difficult to withhold information specifically from recruiters, yet still allow this information to be used for other purposes that parents and students may approve of, such as honor rolls or school TV shows.

Additionally, military recruitment efforts are omnipresent inside our public schools. Recruiters walk freely around high school cafeterias in uniforms and talk to students. They hang posters on the school walls. They loiter in the parking lots. A recent Richland 1 career fair for eighth graders, held at Fort Jackson, S.C., had those representing careers other than the military confined behind tables and answering three short questions, while military personnel operated in groups wandering around, intercepting and talking to children at will.

Earning money for college while traveling around the world, driving Humvees and jumping out of airplanes can be attractive to a high school student. However, recruiters, posters and advertisements accentuate the positive and exaggerate the potential benefits. When recruiters (with their glossy posters and exciting slogans) say that you can get up to $70,000 for college, they seldom stress that this large amount of money is only available for GIs who take military jobs that are very difficult to fill. Nor do they stress that in order to qualify for any aid at all, you must pay a $1,200 nonrefundable fee to the military.

The primary goal of a recruiter is to meet his quota of new recruits, not to have young people fully examine their options and make the best choice for their future. Recruiters are salespeople, not guidance counselors, and should be treated as such.

Being a soldier is different from other jobs. It is illegal for a member of the military to quit. Military personnel have less freedom and less access to constitutional rights than civilians do. Part of the job is the possibility of being in combat in a war, killing other people or dying on duty. There is a large risk of returning home psychologically and/or physically maimed. Soldiers may be asked to fight for a cause that they personally oppose; they must obey orders or face strict legal penalties.

The best time for a person to confront these serious religious, moral and personal dilemmas is before signing up for the military, not after. And the best thing a school can do for the sake of its students is to educate the students on all of the realities of military life — the good, the bad and the ugly. Having recently discharged veterans speak to students — both those who have had good experiences and those who have not — would benefit the students much more than having them subjected to recruitment tactics.

The Pentagon spends nearly $4 billion a year recruiting young Americans to join the military through advertisements and one-on-one contact. As tempting as it is for cash-strapped schools to receive military-funded climbing walls and other resources, these schools should severely limit military recruiters’ access to students.

As military life is unique among careers, in order to help students make the best possible decisions about their future, schools need to better scrutinize the behavior of military recruiters and to teach the realities of war, military contracts and military life.

Michael Berg is director of the Carolina Peace Resource Center in Columbia, S.C.
This article originally appeared in the Columbia-based newspaper, The State, and is reprinted by permission of the author.