When military recruiters really did lose access to Portland kids

The blossoming controversy over military recruiters’ access to public high school students is mystifying on many levels.

As has been widely reported, the proposed state law that would require schools to give G.I. Joe and Jane the same access to high school juniors and seniors that college and corporate recruiters are given appears to be a “solution in search of a problem.” Proponents of the legislation — which failed to pass in the last legislative session but will most certainly be back in the next — have been either unable or unwilling to produce evidence that recruiters have been denied access at any Maine high school.

The situation has unsettling parallels to another military operation, the Iraq War, in which rumor and innuendo about weapons of mass destruction whipped up a firestorm of patriotic fervor that resulted in catastrophe. It’s disturbing to see Gov. Paul LePage and others try to play the patriotism card against fellow Americans who rightly insist that a problem exist before we send troops in to fix it.

But what’s more unsettling is the way both sides seem to be talking around the real issue that keeps military recruiters from interacting with kids: the so-called “opt out” policy that allows students or their parents to keep contact information off the list provided to recruiters of every stripe.

The dirty little secret about the opt-out option is this: The more people know about it, the fewer of them opt to share their information with recruiters. I suspect that’s one reason LePage and the super patriots are focusing on far less substantial matters, like whether recruiters can wear their uniform in schools or approach kids in the lunchroom.

The option to “opt out” has been available for a long time, but in Portland — and, I’m sure, most other communities in Maine — few parents and students exercise their right to opt out because they simply don’t know it exists. Prior to 2005, the opt-out form was one of dozens of papers parents received during the hectic back-to-school days of early September. Not surprisingly, the form was widely ignored — after all, there are more pressing decisions to make before the first day of school, like what to wear.

But that year, a vocal minority of the Portland School Committee aligned with the Green Independent Party pressed to make students more aware of the “opt-out” option. The box that students or parents had to check to opt out was included on the emergency contact card that all students are required to fill out and return.

Earlier in the decade, fewer than 3 percent of students had opted not to be contacted by the military. In 2005, just over half of the juniors and seniors at Deering High School opted out, and about 65 percent of their peers at Portland High School did so.

School board members Stephen Spring and “Zen” Ben Meiklejohn stood on the steps of Portland High on the first day of school that year to raise awareness of the opt-out option. Spring told The Bollard at the time that he expected an even higher percentage of students would opt out in future years as more of them realized they could.

But then another mysterious thing happened. At some point between then and now, the Portland schools stopped including the opt-out boxes on the emergency contact cards. The opt-out form is back in the stack of back-to-school notices that parents and students seldom notice.

It’s unclear how many students opt out in Portland these days — the district apparently doesn’t keep track. It’s also unclear when, why, how and by whose authority the practice of printing the opt-out box on the emergency card was discontinued.

Shoshana Hoose, the Portland district’s communications coordinator, is one of the few administrators from the 2005 era still working at central office. She recalled that “opt out” was an issue back then, but she could shed no light on how or why the forms were changed. School board chairman Jaimey Caron, who’s been on the board since 2007, could not recall any discussion of changing the practice.

Meiklejohn, who’s now a reporter for the Courier papers in York County, left the board the year Caron arrived. He was unaware the change he’d championed had been changed back and noted with regret that the change had been made in 2005 at the administrative level by then-Superintendent Mary Jo O’Connor. Had the board insisted the practice be codified in the district’s policy manual, it would have been much harder for a future superintendent or lower-level bureaucrat — whoever that was — to reverse.

At the very least, someone would have had to talk about it.

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Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.