Few students use ‘opt out’ rights

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Only 12 percent of high school students in Chicago Public Schools have taken advantage of their right not to have personal contact information forwarded to military recruiters, CPS data show.

Under a controversial policy enacted as part of the No Child Left Behind Act, school districts that receive federal funding must give military recruiters the same student contact information, as well as access to high school campuses, that is provided to college recruiters and potential employers.

However, districts are required to notify parents of their right to block access to that information before providing it.

CPS has a standard “opt-out” form that is provided to schools to distribute to students and parents. But this year, just 8,018, or 12 percent, of 68,873 high school students filled out and returned the form by the deadline, according to data from the Office of High School Programs. (The policy applies only to students in grades 10 through 12.)

Activists say that figure is low and suggests schools are not being aggressive enough about informing families of their rights under the NCLB policy. Indeed, a Catalyst Chicago survey of 13 high schools found only two, Kelly and Taft, that complied with CPS guidelines suggesting that schools distribute opt-out forms and information to parents on report card pick-up day and to students during division periods.

The guidelines are in a Nov. 1, 2006 letter from the Office of High School Programs to high school principals and area instructional officers. That letter also states that the district receives complaints each year from parents who report they are unaware of their rights to block access to contact information.

Despite that letter, high schools “have not stepped it up,” says Darlene Gramigna, who monitors military recruitment efforts for the nonprofit American Friends Service Committee.

Little monitoring

Most schools contacted by Catalyst had no idea how many of their students had opted out, or whether parents had ever received the forms. A handful of schools sent out the forms solely by mail.

Tim Tuten, a spokesperson for CPS, says teachers and principals are briefed about the policy during regular district training sessions, but adds that principals have the primary responsibility for monitoring whether their school complies.

“Maybe we could do a better job of notifying parents,” observes Ella Austin, dean of student services at Prosser Career Academy in Belmont-Cragin, who recalls only one parent who “sent a handwritten note” to block release of their child’s contact information.

Others feel that the forms are simply being ignored by parents. “Most of our kids are going to college,” says Kathryn Ragsdale, counseling chair at Brooks College Prep in Roseland, who works with seniors. “I don’t think many parents bother with it.”

Still, Ragsdale adds, students say they are reluctant to talk to recruiters who visit the school “because they’re so good they’ll get you to sign up.”

Students helping students

At Kelly High in Brighton Park, members of the Students for Social Justice Club visit division classes to explain the opt-out policy and forms. “Our principal and administration are interested in students being aware of their rights and free to exercise them,” says history teacher William Lamme, who sponsors the club.

As a result of the campaign, almost 40 percent of Kelly High students—1,200 out of 3,155 students—returned the opt-out form this year, Lamme says.

At Simeon Career Academy in Chatham, counselor Virginia McCabe keeps opt-out forms in her office, but says no one has ever asked her for them and she’s not sure how the school distributes them.

McCabe recalls that the school’s previous principal—whom she describes as pro-military—encouraged her to give contact information directly to recruiters.

“We gave them lists of seniors because he was a believer,” McCabe says. Under that principal, she adds, “we had a lot more kids going into the military.”

McCabe believes that school leadership, family economics and, in recent years, the Iraq War, all play a role in whether or not students explore the military as a possible career. For the most part, she says, students who enlist do so to get money for college—an observation borne out by a recent survey of seniors.

Many students simply don’t have the money to go to college, and scholarships are hard to come by, McCabe says. “For the [student] in the middle of the class, it’s not there.”

Intern Sarah Levy contributed to this report.

To contact Kimberley Driscoll, send an e-mail to editor@catalyst-chicago.org.