Monday, November 23, 2009
In the Crossfire
Copyright © 2009 Albuquerque Journal
By Hailey Heinz
Journal Staff Writer
Public forums at Albuquerque school board meetings have been filled in recent months with discussions of war, morality and patriotism, all centered around Junior ROTC programs and military recruiters' access to campuses.
"Our children are about as safe in your schoolyards right now as a turkey before Thanksgiving," Albuquerque resident Mitzi Kraft told the board Wednesday. "They're stuffed, plucked and served up to recruiters on a silver platter."
The public began piling on in early September after a story was published in the Journal about Maj. Bill Barker taking over the district's military programs.
Kraft and others began speaking regularly at meetings, decrying JROTC programs as a pipeline to military service that encourages a culture of violence. Then, supporters of the program also began attending and speaking during forums.
Kathryn Cerami spoke at a meeting last month and brought a contingent of ROTC students from West Mesa High School. She talked about how the program benefited her twin sons, who are seniors at West Mesa.
"My boys have learned sailing," she said. "They have learned integrity and respect and teamwork."
Cerami called for the board not only to keep JROTC programs, but to expand them.
"It's not all about war; it's about being part of the society that grows today," she said. "We need to have the ROTC program in every single one of our schools."
There are about 1,400 JROTC students in the city's 13 traditional high schools, with five Marine programs, four Air Force, three Navy and one Army program. Military-style leadership programs are also developing in middle schools like Washington, Ernie Pyle, Van Buren, Garfield and Harrison.
The issue, which bubbled up in forums for months, came to a head Wednesday when the board put the issue on its agenda and heard a presentation about the district's recruitment policies.
The district's Secondary Education Program Manager Marie Fritz told the board that recruiters are allowed on campus during college fairs and other events, and they are given contact information for students. Fritz said parents all have the choice to opt out of their student's information being released to recruiters, but acknowledged inconsistencies in how and whether parents are told about the opt-out form.
Under the No Child Left Behind Act, public schools are required to allow military recruiters the same access to schools as they would allow college recruiters or prospective employers. They are also required to provide the military with students' contact information.
Students from the Southwest Organizing Project spoke at Wednesday's meeting, saying they have tried to provide counter-information in public schools about the difficulties of war but have not been allowed the same access as recruiters.
Samantha Montano, 16, is a member of SWOP's youth branch and a junior at Rio Grande High School. She said military recruiters were a presence in the school more frequently than college recruiters and were the most visible option available to students.
"I believe there needs to be equal access," she said.
Board President Martin Esquivel charged the APS administration with making the process more consistent.
"What I'm hearing is inconsistencies, and I think your task is you need to bring back some policies that streamline this," Esquivel said to Superintendent Winston Brooks.
Brooks agreed that the policy needs work, but he cautioned against mixing the issues of JROTC and military recruitment.
"We're kind of blurring all these issues together," he said.
But some of the activists who spoke Wednesday said the issues are tightly linked because JROTC programs feed into the military.
"It absolutely plants the seed," said Micah Shaw, who served two military tours overseas and is the president of Albuquerque's chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War. "The biggest thing is that joining the military is a decision for adults. It's not a decision for children to make."
Barker, who also addressed the board Wednesday, said JROTC is a leadership program. He said he encourages students to go on to college and doesn't pressure them to join the military.
"Our goal is to keep them in school and then help them excel," he said.
Brooks said he plans to examine the opt-out procedures, but he emphasized that JROTC programs help some students feel engaged in their schools.
"I'm a huge supporter of Junior ROTC programs, and I'm hugely supportive of trying to get kids connected in schools," Brooks said. "We have great athletic programs, great fine arts program, but everyone needs a different fit."