Feature: Wednesday, May 10, 2006
Peace activists protest in front of the Federal Building in Dallas.
Army Sgt. Paul Smith counts as a Crowley high school student does one-armed pushups.
Army Cpl. Tino Vanegas oversees a prime recruitment spot — North Crowley High School.
Get ’Em While They’re Young

Aggressive tactics have limited recruiters’ access to Fort Worth schools.

By Jeff Prince

Camouflage fatigues that conceal soldiers in the battlefield make them stand out like green neon signs in the crowded halls of North Crowley High School, and two recruiters smiled, nodded, and responded to friendly shout-outs as they made their way to the gymnasium for a scholastic awards program.

“This is one of our top schools [for recruiting],” U.S. Army Cpl. Tino Vanegas said, walking briskly to his car after the ceremony so he could make a dash to nearby Crowley High School, where two other recruiters were setting up a promotions table in the lunchroom. For two hours they would spread the word about the military to curious teen-agers.

The soldiers don’t get quite the same welcome some 15 miles north, where the Fort Worth Independent School District is bucking the military’s strong influence just a bit.

The No Child Left Behind Act made sure that public schools knew who was boss — the feds. The law requires that the military be given the same access to students as any other recruiters, including those from colleges. Schools that barred military recruitment on campus were threatened with loss of federal funding. A group of law schools, including Yale, tested the legal waters by banning military recruiters from campus, citing the Pentagon’s discrimination against homosexuals. In March, the Supreme Court surprised some civil libertarians by ruling that the federal government can indeed withhold funds from schools that ban recruiters.

Still, policies on military recruitment are being reviewed or toughened in a smattering of school districts around the country. And, surprisingly given Fort Worth’s military background and the Bush influence in Texas, this town is one of them. By giving its schools the ability to limit recruiters and by allowing peace groups to have equal access, the district has made a small statement that hasn’t escaped the military’s notice.

“Fort Worth has a unique policy, and the recruiters aren’t in the schools as often as they are in other areas,” said U.S. Army public affairs officer Kim Levine. “Before this policy was put into place a few months back ... they had a more open policy, and it was less limited.”

With Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts continuing to rage, the U.S. Department of Defense needs more bodies to feed into the war machine. The draft was abolished more than 30 years ago, and so the military must rely on volunteers who can pass mental, physical, and morals requirements. Recruitment is tough in any scenario, but especially when the economy is blossoming, safer jobs are available, and there’s a war that’s losing support.

The military has gone from relying on high-pressure sales pitches and, in many cases, underhanded tactics to now wooing new soldiers with ever-greater bonuses and high-tech gadgetry. Teen-age students are a vital part of the supply pool, and more parents have begun to resent Uncle Sam dangling dangerous carrots in front of kids who may not realize the full extent of their sacrifice until after they’ve signed the dotted line.

For some, this is a fight for the lives of local youngsters.

A clear signal that the Pentagon was becoming desperate for soldiers occurred in 2002, when President George W. Bush signed into law the No Child Left Behind Act, a sweeping change in federal law regarding public schools. Designed to ensure that teachers are qualified and students are proficient in reading and math, the law also contained an obscure clause that required public schools to give military recruiters access to student information. It took a while for schools and parents to realize the scope of the law, but people eventually started complaining.

“The military is desperate,” Fort Worth civil rights attorney Frank Colosi said. “They are fighting an unpopular war and need people to sign up. There’s no draft, and they have to convince people they want to go to war. This is why the federal government put this in the No Child Left Behind Act.”

Recruiters use student information gleaned from school records, including home phone numbers and transcripts, for “prospecting” — making unsolicited calls and visits to homes. They also set up tables in cafeterias and offer free goodies to lure kids over to hear their pitches. They land helicopters in schoolyards and give tours of high-tech multimedia vans.

“The brainwashing starts early,” said Hillary Timmers of Peaceful Vocations, a Fort Worth group that goes into schools to counterbalance recruiters.

Outcries have been limited here in Bush Country, where many people support the president and don’t object to the politicization of an education law or a government’s willingness to cut funding at schools that don’t pander to the military. North Texas school districts report few complaints, although Fort Worth has broken from the pack.

Recruiters have long been a presence in high schools, but the military in recent years has seen a growing resistance to its pitch. No Child Left Behind took care of that. Few schools — especially in this cash-strapped state — are willing to risk losing federal dollars. As a result, some critics have dubbed the law “No Child Left Unrecruited.”

A New York school district initially banned recruiters and refused to release student information. But the Fairport Central School District eventually complied. “They worked with a senior Department of Defense official and ... they worked out their differences,” said U.S. Department of Defense spokeswoman Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke.

She said she knows of no high school that has lost federal funding or taken the federal government to court over the law.

Colosi said the federal government is asking school leaders to waive their constitutional rights. Another way to look at it: The federal government is bribing school leaders to overlook their constitutional rights. And what happens when recruiters are caught making grandiose promises or lying to students? School leaders are then put in a position of allowing federal employees to deceive students, he said.

For off-campus recruiting, the military wants access to personal information, such as phone numbers. Parents and kids can “opt out,” but it can be a confusing process.

The stakes have been high and getting higher for military recruiters in recent years. In the 1990s, the military had just reduced its forces, meaning fewer veterans were returning home to tout the benefits. The long-running “Be All You Can Be” marketing campaign wasn’t resonating with youth. “An Army Of One” replaced it in 2001. And in 2003, the Iraqi conflict added tremendously to the pressure.

The Army and the Marines failed to meet recruitment goals last year, and the military doesn’t cotton to failure. Maintaining 1.4 million active duty troops and 1.2 million in guard and reserve units, it seemed, required a renewed focus. The Army, the service branch most relied upon in Iraq, raised its maximum age limit for recruits from 35 to 39. More benefits were offered.

“During late 2004 and in 2005 we were given additional recruiters and advertising funding,” Army spokesman Doug Smith said. “We’ve been able to increase the maximum cash enlistment bonus from $20,000 to 40,000.”

The Army college fund now offers up to $71,000 to each recruit, although critics say loopholes abound and it’s difficult to actually get all the money. Still, monetary promises in the five figures are a powerful recruiting tool. So far this year, the Army is ahead of its goal of recruiting 80,000 for active duty and 25,500 for the reserves.

“We’ve still got a long time between now and the end of September [the end of the fiscal year], but we’re cautiously optimistic,” Smith said.

Cautious optimism is wise because the goal isn’t a gimme. The Fort Worth area has seen a steady increase in recruits in recent years, but the sheer numbers are hardly impressive. Recruiters are told they need to sign an average of two new recruits a month. It’s not happening. Recruiters interviewed for this story weren’t even averaging one a month. Fort Worth’s 25 recruiters signed up about 120 new soldiers in 2005. Since 2001, this area has generated about 100 recruits a year.

Krenke listed various reasons for the resistance: “A very good economy — unemployment is at its lowest levels in many years. Kids today have many choices, and a lot of them have been able to go to college,” she said.

Entrance requirements are another factor. Recruits must score in the upper 60th percentile on the Armed Forces Qualitative Tests, meet stringent physical qualifications, and have no felony convictions.

“Only about 30 percent of today’s youth are qualified to join the military,” Krenke said. “Five years ago only 5 percent were considered obese but today 15 percent of kids are considered obese.”

And then there’s the granddaddy of all recruiting challenges, a war in Iraq.

“A conflict as long as this one will have an effect on recruiting,” Krenke said.

Army Cpl. Tino Vanegas didn’t ask to be a recruiter. Infantry is his game. But his assignment came down about five months ago, and he found himself in Fort Worth, hanging out in high schools, pushing the military life to fresh-faced kids much like him. He isn’t sure why the Army pegged him. “I guess I met some type of qualifications,” he said.

He’s a good-looking guy of 20, and Vanegas’ presence in school hallways on a recent morning was met by longing looks from young girls and respectful glances from boys. He is plainspoken, poised, relaxed, and confident. He wants to go to college one day and use the military’s offer of financial aid, which is a strong selling point in convincing others to join.

He signed up his first recruit after only two weeks and thought the job would be a breeze. It wasn’t. He’s had only three recruits “on the floor” since then.

“It’s hard,” he said.

Meeting kids face to face at schools is easier than prospecting via cold calls. “We have people hang up on us,” he said. “We get cussed out. Some parents make up their minds for the kids and say, ‘No, they don’t want to join, and don’t ever call back.’ Right now, a lot of people are scared of getting deployed.”

No Child Left Behind might guarantee certain privileges to recruiters, but having access to students doesn’t necessarily mean success. If a school decides to play hardball, it can limit major recruiting visits to two days each school year. And while the military denies focusing its efforts on poor and minority students, recruitment is most noticeable at schools that fall under that category — for instance, Trimble Tech, North Side, and Carter-Riverside high schools in Fort Worth.

Off the record, local recruiters say that it can be tough to recruit poor, minority students because often those students don’t meet requirements. Instead, recruiters say they are most successful if they have time to meet kids face to face, determine which ones are interested and qualified, view their school records, and develop a rapport over time. In other words, they are most successful in schools that give them freedom. The opinions of parents often determine whether a particular school welcomes recruiters.

The demand for soldiers prompted Army Sgt. Paul Smith to volunteer as a recruiter, and he regularly visits Crowley schools. “Crowley school district is very open,” he said.

While standing in a school cafeteria waiting for students to take their lunch period, Smith denied using hard-sell techniques and said he simply provides information. The way he sees it, he is offering jobs to students about to graduate. He wants to meet his recruitment quotas, but he’s not willing to sell his soul. Most other recruiters feel the same way, he said.

“You have to have trust and credibility,” he said. “A lot of people have an idea that we try to trick them into joining. They have this idea that recruiters lie. But it’s not a sales presentation. We’re not sales people anymore.”

He even attends high school sporting events on his off hours — sans fatigues — so that students will get to know him better and see him as a civilian and friend, not just a recruiter.

But after a bell rang and students came pouring through the cafeteria door, Smith transformed into that salesman he referred to, delivering pitches, complimenting kids on their attire, doing one-armed pushups, showing them his paycheck, chiding, cajoling, whatever he could do to engage them in conversations that might end up with a commitment to the Army.

Most students ignored him. A few were silently hostile, passing by with stern glances. Some were goofy, like puppies, wanting to verbally banter and beg for free Army pencils but showing little inclination to enlist. Only a few stopped to seriously inquire about military life and sign cards inviting the recruiter to call them at home.

“Don’t do it! Don’t do it!” a couple of kids hollered from a lunch table as schoolmate stopped to sign a card.

A 16-year-old kid with a buff build and crew cut approached the table and said hello to Smith. They have spoken numerous times in recent weeks.

“You’re ready to be a junior, huh?” Smith said. “It’s about that time. You know who you need to come see.”

Another student, a 17-year-old junior, told Smith he was interested in joining but couldn’t get his mother to approve. “The biggest thing my mom was worried about was me getting sent to Iraq and getting shot,” he said.

Smith keeps working the crowd, talking, convincing, explaining. He seems good at what he does, but, like most recruiters these days, doesn’t have a lot to show for it. He’s signed up only three people in five months.

Most school districts offer this type of access to students on a regular basis. “Our administration supports the military as being another form of post-high school education, just like community college or four-year college or a vocational setting,” Arlington Independent School District spokeswoman Veronica Sopher said. “What’s appropriate for one student might not be appropriate for another.”

Fort Worth school district Assistant Superintendent Sue Guthrie has heard complaints about recruiters, but she said it’s hard to dub somebody a shark for touting a job they love. Besides, advertising and promotion are common in American society.

“I think recruiters tell the truth,” she said. “They come to schools and want students to join the military, and they tell them all those things. Their intentions are to sell what they see are the wonderful things in the military.”

Not everyone’s buying.

A gangly teen with baggy jeans and wearing headphones walked up, looked at the free goodies, and picked up a brochure.

“Are you looking for a career?” Smith said.

“I’ve got a job,” he replied sourly.

“You think you make as much as me?” Smith asked, ready to display his paycheck and impress another kid with his $1,651 twice-a-month take-home pay and 30 days of annual vacation time. But the teen dropped the brochure, turned on his heels and walked off, briefly looking over his shoulder and saying, “I’m good.”

After the lunch period ended, Smith began packing up to leave. A cafeteria worker asked him if she could have some free pencils to give to her children.

“How old are your kids?” Smith said.

She listed their ages, including a 22-year-old son, who had recently left college, was unemployed, and living in Dallas.

“He’s unemployed? He lives in Dallas?” Smith said, eyes brightening as he plucked a business card from his pocket.

The strong presence of military recruiters in high schools has prompted some locals to provide an alternate viewpoint for students. Peaceful Vocations sent a couple of members to Trimble Tech to speak to classes, and the Fort Worth school district didn’t object. Ramsey Sprague and another volunteer told students about the atrocities of war, the hardships on veterans, and the military’s targeting of poor and minority students for recruitment.

“A lot of kids are given the understanding that their only opportunity to get out of their situation is to join the military,” Sprague said.

Peace activists hold weekly vigils outside the Federal Building in Dallas, where recruits go for testing and enlistment. The protesters hold signs with messages such as “Is Your Recruiter Lying?” Some recruits are afraid to be seen talking to the protesters but later call a G.I. Rights hotline to discuss their legal rights.

“We have posters that have the G.I. Hotline phone number and web site on it,” said local peace activist Laray Polk. “If they are being lied to by recruiters, it’s better that they question those things now than before they get to boot camp.”

Some of the most vulnerable recruits are high school students, who can be naïve and easily impressed by promises of adventure, big paychecks, and college financial aid. “The fact that the recruiters have such an expansive presence in our high schools has a subconscious effect on students that militarism is a part of their schooling and education,” Polk said. “We’ve grown to casually accept recruiters in the lunchroom.”

For five months, Polk and friends spent Thursday afternoons outside the Federal Building without incident. That changed on May 4, when three cars marked “Homeland Security” pulled up. Polk and a fellow protester were each cited for creating a disturbance — allegedly they were blocking the entrance to the building. Polk said they weren’t blocking the entrance, were given no warnings, and were told to stand across the street.

On May 11, Polk and others are planning to meet at noon at the Federal Building and hold another vigil.

“We’re hoping at that time we’ll have an ACLU representative who can clearly define the law for us, where we can lawfully stand and not be subject to any more incidents like this,” she said.

Opposition to on-campus recruitment is spreading. In January, a group of Austin students started a campaign to toughen that district’s policies. High-pressure techniques by recruiters spurred the kids to action, said Kate Kelly, 14, a freshman at Austin’s LBJ High School, who received her first recruitment letter at age 12. The group is called Youth Activists of Austin.

“Almost all of the members of the group have had experiences with military recruiters, and that’s what motivated a lot of us to get involved,” she said, describing how recruiters exaggerate benefits, downplay pitfalls, and ingratiate themselves with school “influencers,” such as teachers, coaches, administrators, and student leaders.

“Sometimes the military can be the right choice for students,” she said. “I just think the recruiters have shown with their behavior that they ... don’t deserve the leeway we have given them in the past.”

Reports of shady recruitment techniques culminated in a “stand-down day” in May 2005, when the Army suspended recruitment to address numerous allegations about cheating to make quotas. Recruiters were required to watch a videotaped message about values, reaffirm their oaths, and discuss personal integrity and ethics. The Army’s senior recruiting officer acknowledged numerous instances of improprieties across the country, including a Houston recruiter accused of bullying a potential recruit.

One of the most publicized cases involved a Denver-area student. David McSwane was a senior who wrote for his school newspaper and posed as a dropout with a marijuana habit who had decided to enlist. His recruiter advised him to create a fake diploma and use a detoxifier to mask his drug use.

“I was shocked; I’m sitting there looking at a poster that says ‘Integrity, Honor, Respect,’ and he is telling me to lie,” McSwane told CBS News after his article received national attention.

Speaking at the Pentagon last year, Army Maj. Gen. Michael D. Rochelle said long deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan have created the most challenging conditions for recruiters since the Army became an all-volunteer service in 1973, but “we hold every single recruiter to the highest level of adherence” to values.

With 5,800 active Army recruiters and 1,600 reserve recruiters currently working, problems will occur, but a few bad apples shouldn’t spoil the whole basket, Army spokesman Smith said. “Some people just lack the moral character, but we’ve got thousands of recruiters across the nation, and the vast majority know how to recruit with integrity and within the rules,” he said.

David Segal, director of the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland, doesn’t see a problem with recruiting in high schools. After all, thousands of youngsters are taking the plunge each year, and for some, it’s their best opportunity. “Some of those high school students are going to go in the military, and the more they have a chance to learn about it, the better,” he said.

However, he doesn’t like the government getting leverage through the No Child Left Behind Act.

“It gives the military a little too much freedom,” he said. “The military recruiters have to realize that No Child Left Behind isn’t a hunting license. At a time when the service is experiencing recruiting shortfalls it’s not easy to restrain recruiters from bringing in bodies any way they can.”

The Fort Worth Independent School District was a surprising candidate to react to aggressive recruiters and a growing peace movement, something that has typically occurred in progressive cities such as Austin, Denver, Seattle, and San Francisco. Tarrant County overwhelmingly supported Bush in the 2004 election with 62 percent of the vote — more than in any other comparable county in the South.

Fort Worth wasn’t dubbed “Fort” for nothing. The city sprang from an Army outpost established in 1849 to keep Indians from scalping settlers. War and weaponry have propped up the city ever since. World War I created Camp Bowie, where soldiers learned to fly and fight. World War II produced “the bomber plant,” General Dynamics, the city’s largest employer for years. Families survived on paychecks earned from making B-24 bombers. Pilots trained at Carswell Air Force Base. Helicopters were instrumental during the Vietnam War, and Bell Helicopter churned out Hueys.

Thousands of families settled in Fort Worth to work at these plants and the various offshoot businesses. Soldiers who trained here fell in love with the city and returned to settle down. Military families are generally receptive to recruiters offering teens another career opportunity. After all, a volunteer army only provides information. Students can take it or leave it.

Levine, the Army spokeswoman in Dallas, said Fort Worth’s policy change restricts recruiters to one visit a semester to set up promotional tables.

“Fort Worth is the only independent school district [in North Texas] that has that policy in place that we are aware of,” she said.

Strictly speaking, the district’s policy hasn’t changed. What occurred was a “district regulation and guideline change,” said assistant superintendent Guthrie.

The school board determines policy. Regulations and guidelines are district staff’s interpretation of that policy. The interpretation changed this year after complaints from parents and principals about military recruiters.

“Principals were complaining that recruiters were becoming more aggressive and wanting to take students off campus to give them the military tests,” Guthrie said. “We felt like we needed to set some guidelines to control recruiting on campus.”

The military couldn’t be singled out, and so the guideline change involves all recruiters, including those from colleges.

Anti-war activists, meanwhile, have become more vocal about providing students with alternative views. The district’s new guidelines give these groups equal access.

“It’s a national movement that’s been coming up, and we wanted to get in front of it and address our policies to fit the changing climate,” Guthrie said. “The peace movement gained a foothold in this country. We as a school district need to allow equal access to both groups. Until this year I’m not aware that the peace groups have ever asked for access to go into schools.”

The Fort Worth district is also addressing the situation through its version of the “opt-out” policy that allows parents to prohibit military recruiters from getting personal information. In some districts, the form arrives among the jumble of other information sent home with students at the beginning of each school year and is easily overlooked. And in many schools, opting out can mean that a child’s information is withheld from all types of recruiters, including colleges — which leads many parents to leave their kids’ information available.

“It’s all-encompassing,” said Texas Education Agency spokeswoman Debbie Graves Ratcliff. “If they opt out, then their child is not even in the student directory.”

In Dallas, parents are notified about the opt-out in student handbooks, but the form lumps the military and colleges together. If parents sign, they forbid the school district from releasing a child’s name, address, and telephone to “military recruiters and institutions of higher education ... .”

As Polk, the peace activist, wrote in a March 9 column in The Dallas Morning News: “The bottom line? While there’s a law in place for students and parents who choose to opt-out, it’s a cumbersome one and a process that seems to work more in favor of the recruiters than the families opposed to such contact.”

Fort Worth has taken a more discerning stand: Parents can block the military but still allow student information to go to college recruiters. Taking such steps to tighten access to students and their personal information without bucking No Child Left Behind can be a tightrope walk.

“It’s something parents have expressed to us over and over — their desire to not have the student information given out. They feel they should make the choice,” Fort Worth school trustee Juan Rangel said.

Local protesters are few but determined. Fort Worth peace activists are warning students about recruitment tricks and urging parents to learn about their rights. Similar movements are happening around the country.

“The military has become too aggressive in the schools,” said Susan VanHaitsma of the Austin-based Non-Military Options for Youth.

North Side High School, situated in a working-class Hispanic neighborhood, is a popular recruiting spot. The school has a large ROTC program with 180 students and a friendly philosophy regarding recruiters. However, recruiters can’t just stop any student they want to and give their spiel. They are told to stick near their promotional tables and to talk only to the students who approach them.

“They don’t go get kids; the kids can just go see them if they are interested,” said Tammy Cooper, the principal’s secretary. “We don’t want our kids to think that is their only option, but they should know that it is an option.”

The school counselor who coordinates recruiters said the military generally seeks student information only if a child has expressed a desire to enlist.

“It’s not any different than a college representative having an interest in a student,” counselor Tom Hasse said.

Off-campus is a different story. Diana Rios had a son graduate from North Side several years ago, and she helped take care of another boy who graduated last year. Marine recruiters hounded both boys, making frequent phone calls and visits to the house and using high-pressure sales pitches. After she warned the recruiters to back off, they stopped visiting the house but continued to apply pressure at school, even calling the boys out of classes to talk or approaching them in the cafeteria.

Rios characterized the recruiters as “tenacious” and “very heavy-handed.”

Not everyone objects to the attention.

“A lot of students figure that’s a good option for them,” said North Side teacher Jessica Schemmel. “I don’t ever hear much positive or negative from parents.”

A positive impact of the military is discipline.

“Even though I would rather them go to college, the kids that have already been recruited and know they are going into the military, they seem to have better focus as far as getting their school work done because they know if they don’t they’ll get in trouble with the commander,” Schemmel said

At Sam Houston High School in Arlington, recruiters “are part of the landscape,” said journalism teacher Tara Haelle, who wonders whether recruiters come on too strong and make promises that can’t be fulfilled. Her father is retired Navy, and she knows a thing or two about the service. When students tell her they are interested in joining, she grills them to make sure they haven’t been misled, “which I find is the case sometime,” she said. “I’ve had kids tell me they are only going to join for two years and then get out. I tell them, ‘Are you sure you’re going to be able to get out in two years?’ Recruiters need to do a better job of making it clear what kind of commitment is involved in trying to get a college degree.”

Haelle told of one student who joined the military to get a college degree and, at 19, found herself deployed in Iraq. “The recruiters focus so much on the college aspect that they neglect to discuss the real risks involved,” Haelle said. “I don’t have anything against the military, but I am wary of recruiters. They need to sell an idea, and it makes sense to highlight the positive and downplay the negative.”

You can reach Jeff Prince at jeff.prince@fwweekly.com.

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