Waging a war against recruitment at Albuquerque’s public high schools
In Albuquerque’s high schools, students are more likely to sign up for military service than join the student senate. The armed forces are as popular as any school sport and, on many campuses, military recruiters and the JROTC are a more prominent presence than college or career scouts.
Since the beginning of the Iraq war, a group of Albuquerque-based activists has rallied for “balanced” representation of post-secondary opportunities in New Mexico’s public schools. The military, they say, is selling students on the service with sugarcoated stories and deceptive sweet talk.
Statistics indicate the sales pitch has been a success. Since 2005, military recruitment in New Mexico is up by 23 percent, reports the National Priorities Project. Conversely, college enrollment has stagnated. According to the 2005-2006 Report on the Condition of Higher Education, published by the New Mexico Department of Higher Education, “Enrollment at New Mexico’s public institutions of higher education is relatively flat … [and] will remain flat.”
Still, Sgt. Stephen Standifird, public affairs representative for Recruiting Albuquerque, denies any dishonesty in communication with students. “I don’t think there are a lot of blatant lies told to kids,” he says, though he acknowledges that “a recruiter has to gear their spiel to a particular kid.” Standifird says there is competition among the various military academies and that, occasionally, one will slander another to win a recruit. Otherwise, he says, recruiters are straightforward.
A year ago, the Albuquerque Center for Peace and Justice partnered with the SouthWest Organizing Project (SWOP) to form Another Side, a campaign to lobby for the availability of “balanced” information about military service on APS campuses. Another Side contends that military recruiters are given preferential access to students over other groups, specifically those that advocate for peace. The group itself says it has had difficulty gaining access to the schools. By law, a school must allow military recruiters on its campus if it receives federal funds.
Casandra Stewart, now a youth intern with SWOP, graduated from West Mesa High School in 2003. Stewart recalls military recruiters calling her “at least once a week,” she says. “They would say that I needed to contact them. They were very manipulative, very knifing. I felt really targeted.” Stewart surmises that most students join the military for the promise of financial security. But, she says, “They need to know that alternatives exist.” While in school, Stewart says, she didn’t see any college or career recruiters, but felt the military was “always in [her] ear.”
Maj. Mark Hendricks, JROTC teacher at West Mesa High School, believes there is balanced representation of both the military and alternative options on APS campuses. “Career and college recruiters are here all the time,” he says. The recruiters at West Mesa, he adds, “Are straight-up. Most are good, honest men and women. A bad recruiter is an anomaly.” Hendricks affirms that recruiters do explain that students will see active combat, if their contract calls for it. Naturally, he says, “I don’t want to see any of these kids get hurt.” Hendricks also denies Another Side’s claim that JROTC programs funnel students to the military. “Instructors here don’t do this to put kids in the service. We don’t lie to the kids.” Hendricks says his “job isn’t to sell a specific point of view. It’s to teach, to be a role model.”
In October of 2006, the APS School Board agreed to meet with high school principals and conduct a study, spearheaded by assistant superintendent Susie Peck, on the status of equal access to campuses by the military and other groups. Though the results of the study were scheduled to be published in late January of 2007, they were continually postponed until a committee meeting on May 3. Rigo Chavez, director of communications for APS, says the issue was postponed because the board wanted to “ensure they gave it enough time to discuss it.”
At a previous board meeting, SWOP youth intern Julian Moya presented a letter demanding that the board share its findings. In his letter, Moya called recruiters “the salesmen for the military; misleading our youth with bribes of wealth and education in exchange for the ultimate risk—their lives.” The letter also accused the military of targeting low-income students of color and further demanded “the opportunity for young people to make well-informed decisions about their future.” The letter urged that Another Side have “access to all Albuquerque Public Schools to provide alternative education to the military, specifically those of predominately low-income, young people of color.”
But Hendricks believes Another Side “is not properly presenting the facts” about recruiters and campus JROTC programs. “There’s a misperception about who we are and what we do,” he says. “We’re teachers. We provide opportunities for students to grow. We’re not aiming kids at the service. We teach life skills, discipline and that it’s OK to be different. We don’t teach warfare or teach kids how to kill.” Hendricks says the JROTC program has often been a blessing for those students who “are walking the fence” and “need that structure.” Hendricks denies Another Side’s accusation that military recruiters prey on poorer campuses. “To say that rich kids never go, that’s just not true.”
Several times, Hendricks says he has “un-recruited” students from the military because he felt it wasn’t in their best interest. “Service is fundamentally a calling,” he says. “It’s a vocation. You have to want to do it.” On only one occasion did Hendricks feel that a recruiter hadn’t been forthright with a student about his prospective military duties and, thus, he un-recruited that student from the service. School counselors and JROTC instructors monitor recruiters and their interactions with students. “Unethical recruiters,” says Hendricks, “are tossed off campus.”
Matt Willey, a former JROTC student at West Mesa, says Hendricks helped him weigh his decision to join the military. “I asked myself if I was ready or not,” says Willey. “But when I visited, I knew it was the place for me.” Willey, who will attend the Marines Academy beginning in the fall, says his recruiter was forthcoming about his commitment to the military.
Standifird, who was unfamiliar with Another Side, held that he had not “seen or heard of any incident” in which a recruiter misled a student. “If a parent asks, ‘Is my son or daughter going to war? Will they kill someone?’ We don’t have a yes or no answer. It’s all based on the kid’s specific qualifications.” If a recruiter does offer misleading information, Standifird says, there are non-judicial consequences, such as a letter of reprimand or relief of duty. Standifird confirmed that recruiters do have quotas, though he was unsure of precise numbers.
In response to Another Side’s accusation that recruiters target poor and minority students, Standiford says, “Demographics probably do play in. Kids who have college paid for probably won’t think about other options.”
Maria Santelli, co-coordinator of the Center for Peace and Justice, says Another Side “isn’t necessarily saying that recruiters should leave the schools, but there needs to be a balance.” Santelli insists that schools should provide students with equal access to information about military service and its alternatives to make an informed decision about their future. “As adults,” she says, “it’s our responsibility. As young people, it’s their right.”
Another Side plans to publish an informational booklet on alternatives to military service for New Mexico youth. Many students are enticed to join the military by the promise of money and the chance to travel, says Santelli. The booklet will feature options that hold the same appeal but do not require military service.
On May 3, the APS School Board guaranteed Another Side and similar groups equal access to the schools. The board also decided to publish a calendar specifying dates of recruiter visits. However, in an e-mail to high school activities directors sent after the meeting, Joseph Escobedo, public information specialist for APS, instructed schools to neither allow nor disallow Another Side access until APS established a protocol for the visits.
“Every second this is delayed, another young person is making a vital life decision,” says Monica Cordova SWOP Youth Coordinator. “It’s putting lives of young students at risk.”
Santelli is pleased with the School Board’s decision but isn’t certain that it will help her organization and other pro-peace groups gain access. “We’ll have to wait and see,” she says. “The bottom line is, are things going to change?”