When Congress enacted the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), a 2002 federal law intended to raise standards in education, lawmakers could not have predicted that a minor provision requiring public schools to provide students' names and addresses to military recruiters would become one of the most controversial aspects of the new law.
But that's exactly what has happened.
The military recruitment provision of NCLB has caused concern for families who don't want to invite military recruiters into their lives and who fear for their privacy. Interest in the recruitment provision has grown along with public unease with the war in Iraq and well-publicized shortfalls in military recruitment.
The ACLU-NJ regularly hears from students and parents who want to learn how to stop their schools from releasing students' private information to military recruiters.
Fortunately, NCLB also requires schools to inform parents that they have a right to opt out of the recruitment provision to protect their children's privacy. Unfortunately, schools have varying systems for notifying parents, and many families never of learn of their right to opt out.
In Montclair, 'Oye Oye'
No school community in New Jersey has paid more attention to this law than at Montclair High School, where students took an early interest in the law. A few of students started a club called Oye Oye ? Open Your Eyes, Open Your Ears ? to educate their peers about the issue.
Because of Oye Oye's work, nearly 90% of Montclair families have opted out of military recruitment. Prior to this student activism, 33% had opted out. A parents' group then helped develop a policy for Montclair, passed in August 2003, requiring that students return the opt-in/opt-out form to the school administration before they can get their class schedule. This helps ensure that the matter gets the attention it deserves.
If only every school had students like those who took the initiative to start Oye Oye in Montclair. However, most schools make only minimal efforts to provide the opt-out notification required by NCLB, such as printing the notice in the student handbook or in the local newspaper. In either case, there is plenty of opportunity to miss it.
Lifting the Veil
To provide families with meaningful notification of students' privacy rights, the ACLU-NJ asks schools to take the following steps:
- Provide the required notice of families' right to opt out in a separate mailing, apart from other school materials.
- Include with the mailing a simple opt-out form explaining that families may place limits on who can obtain their student's personal information.
- Give families a reasonable period of time to exercise their opt-out rights, and note that families may change their opt-out status at any time during the school year by providing written notice.
- Translate the information for non-English-speaking families if the family may not understand its rights if the explanation is not in their native language.
- Consider ways to inform students separately from notification to their parents, since students are the ones directly affected by recruitment programs and have the right to opt themselves out, unless their parents overrule it.
Information, Please. And Make It Accurate.
A related issue concerns a recent statement in the press made by a representative of the New Jersey Department of Education asserting that students who opted out of NCLB must also opt out of having their names sent to colleges for recruitment.
We do not believe that opt-out is an all-or-nothing proposition. Families should be able to bar disclosure of student information to military recruiters while giving colleges and universities access to the information. We hope to persuade the state Department of Education to issue a memo correcting its representative's incorrect statement and encouraging school districts to follow the guidelines in providing opt-out information.
The students at Montclair High School are a shining example of how activism and education can affect how constitutional rights are enforced in real life. These students want to have the right to information about the range of post-graduation opportunities available to them, and to explore those opportunities on their own terms, with their rights to privacy protected.
If students already on military recruitment lists want their name removed, they can write to the following address: Joint Advertising, Market Research and Studies, "Attention: Opt Out", 4040 North Fairfax Drive Suite 200, Arlington, VA 22203-1613. They need to provide name, address, telephone number, and date of birth and to state that they want their name removed from recruitment lists.
-By Deborah Jacobs, ACLU-NJ Executive Director