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Activists seek to counter military recruiting pitch

Times Staff Writer

Troubled by military recruiting at Los Angeles high schools, activists are seeking equal access to students on campus to provide what they say is unvarnished information about the armed forces and information about nonmilitary careers.

The Coalition Against Militarism in Our Schools, a Southern California group of educators, volunteers and veterans dedicated to promoting nonviolent alternatives to military service, is taking the proposal to the Los Angeles Board of Education, saying it is vital that students have the truth about military enlistment. That “truth,” however, is subjective: Some view the group’s literature as controversial itself.

Recruiters “are marketers. They have a quota, and it’s their job to get students to sign up. So just like a car salesman, they’re going to say everything they can to get students to sign up,” said Arlene Inouye, coordinator of the nonprofit South Pasadena-based group funded by grants and donations.

“The most important thing we want to tell students is that the military enlistment decision is probably one of the -- if not the -- most important decision in their life. It’s a really serious matter. They need to hear about some of the realities of what veterans have experienced and what the military enlistment contract actually says.”

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Some military officials questioned the peace group’s motives.

“We are not confident that these groups’ intentions are to provide students with opportunities, but rather to spend a great deal of time and effort to provide disinformation that advances their organizations’ agenda with little regard to the individual student,” said Lt. Col. Jonathan Withington, a Pentagon spokesman, in an e-mail.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law in 2002, requires schools to provide military recruiters with the same access to high schools as colleges and employers, and compels schools to turn over students’ names, addresses and phone numbers unless parents opt out.

The U.S. Department of Defense spends $3.5 billion annually on recruitment and enlisted more than 181,000 people for active-duty forces in the 2007 fiscal year and more than 138,000 for the reserves. The Southland is fertile ground: Los Angeles County ranked third in the nation in raw numbers of Army recruits in 2007.

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Military recruiters’ access varies among schools, with some administrators allowing them to wander the halls chatting with students, work out with the football team, and bring Hummers and sports cars on campus.

Under a pilot proposal, which United Teachers Los Angeles endorsed in April, peace group volunteers would visit 10 to 15 high schools per week and set up a table where they would offer information about enlistment, career alternatives and opting not to have their personal information shared with the military.

In May, Los Angeles Unified School District administrators said they could not unilaterally order high schools to give the group access. Instead, Inouye was urged to meet with principals, assistant principals and guidance counselors.

Inouye will present the proposal to the school board’s curriculum and instruction committee Thursday; it could come before the full board in July.

Legal precedent more than two decades old allows counter-recruiters equal access to schools, but in practice, rules vary widely. Some schools have opened their doors to counter-recruiters for years, while others refuse to allow them on campus. But as concerns about recruitment in a time of war have grown, schools in Oxnard, Minneapolis and Pinellas County, Fla., decided this school year to provide equal access to organizations such as Coalition Against Militarism in Schools, Veterans for Peace and others.

In Austin, Texas, Nonmilitary Options for Youth has worked for more than a decade to reach out to student organizations and guidance counselors. Two years ago, the organization, along with student activists, persuaded district officials to restrict recruiters’ movements on campuses so they could no longer roam the halls talking to students and to clarify counter-recruiters’ access to campus, said Susan Van Haitsma, a leader of the group.

Currently, the group sets up a table at most of the district’s dozen high schools about once a semester, distributing “Addicted to War” comic books, holding a poll in which students vote on how the government ought to spend its budget, and bringing in veterans to talk to students about their military experiences. The group is limited by its small budget and the free time of its volunteers, but Van Haitsma said they reach about 500 students annually.

In Los Angeles, access varies greatly depending on the school, Inouye said. Some administrators will not allow such groups on campus and try to restrict them from distributing pamphlets outside school. Others, such as Garfield High School, are more open.

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At a career fair at the East Los Angeles high school last month, Inouye’s organization was given a table next to the Marines.

Staff Sgt. Victor Jimenez distributed T-shirts, water bottles, key chains and posters, and collected dozens of students’ phone numbers. Jimenez said he typically visits the school about twice a week, meeting with interested teenagers to discuss enlistment and going running with students. He also meets with students in his office in Montebello.

“We sit down with them one on one and talk about what the Marine Corps offers for them,” he said.

Recruiters for the Army and the Air Force worked other aisles of the job fair, sprinkled among scores of recruiters from UCLA, a beauty college, Toyota and others. About 1,500 students streamed through the gymnasium.

Jimenez was surprised to learn that the women at the next table were counter-recruiters.

“I don’t care,” he said. “They’re welcome to do what they want.”

But when told some of CAMS’ talking points, his eyes grew wide. “Wow,” he said.

The group does not mince words -- a brochure on the table aimed at young women considering joining the military features the testimony of a woman who said she was raped while serving in the Navy, and says women in the armed forces are more likely to be sexually assaulted compared with women in the general population.

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The volunteers told students that they would be sacrificing their lives to enrich private companies, that the military unfairly targeted minorities and poor communities, and that they would be sent to Iraq and “get your heads blown off.”

Freshman Ashley Flores, 15, said she was pleased to hear a different viewpoint on campus.

“You see lots of recruiters” at school, said Ashley, who said she was opposed to the war in Iraq and whose stepbrother is an Army soldier stationed there. “I think the military just shows the positives of what you get if you join. They just show the good things.”

But junior Jessica Reynoso, 16, whose brother is also in the Army, said the counter-recruiters’ table was offensive. In the poll about government spending, she bypassed the options labeled “education,” “environment” and “healthcare.”

“I put all my pennies in the military,” she said. “My brother’s risking his life for us.”

Inouye asked students why they wanted to join the military, turning to freshman Adrian Cruz, who plans to enlist in the Marines upon graduation.

“I want to fight for our country,” Adrian said. “I’ll be, like, the hero.”

Inouye told the wiry teen he would end up in Iraq “killing a lot of innocent people,” or could be killed himself.

“I’m only going to kill people who shoot at me,” Adrian replied, patting the round Marines sticker he had stuck to the strap of his backpack.

Adrian said he was angry that Inouye, along with his parents, brother and teachers, questioned his decision about what to do with his life.

“It just made me kind of mad,” he said. “I know they are right. I just put it in the back of my head. I still want to be a Marine.”

Adrian went back to the Marines’ table, where Jimenez, in his dress uniform, handed the 15-year-old his phone number.

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seema.mehta@latimes.com


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