It’s late in the afternoon at Norman Thomas High School, an orange-bricked high rise that stands awkwardly off of Park Avenue on Manhattan’s East Side. Despite the golden letters on the building’s face, it’s hard to tell this is a school.
More police and security guards enter and exit through the building’s doors than do students; an NYPD police van sits outside. Within minutes of my arrival, I’m approached by men in badged uniforms questioning my presence. Inside, students must pass through metal detectors to get to class. It already feels like a combat zone.
Further uptown, days before classes end for the summer, Jamal Sanders, 17, cool and assured, stands with a group of friends, hanging out on the street in front of A. Philip Randolph Campus High School in West Harlem, where thick iron bars wrap around windows and security guards quietly enter and exit the building, patrolling the block. For Jamal, like most high school students in the city who don’t have a close friend or relative serving overseas, the war in Iraq is a distant reality, though one that has brewed quietly in the background throughout the entirety of his high school career. This month, the first high school class that grew up on the Iraq War graduate; this is the 9/11-generation come of age.
But at times, the war gives rise to battles of a different sort: the clash in cafeterias and counseling offices between military and counter-recruitment activists over access to the city’s schools and the tactics recruiters use to entice students too young to drink legally but old enough to enlist for war. In recent years, peace activists, parents and students have joined together with groups like the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) to stage their own counter-insurgency against what they describe as the military’s use of heavy-handed tactics that go well beyond the appropriate means of conduct. They accuse the military of harassing students, manipulating them with lies and slick marketing, and disproportionately targeting low income students and students of color.
Jamal and his friends complain of constant bombardment by military recruiters, whom they report are a common fixture in the school’s hallways and counseling offices. “They be up in the school. We try to get away from them,” he described, earning a chorus of nods from his friends. Eleventh grader Jordan Smith, also 17, agreed. “They just don’t give up,” he said. “You get away from one person, and then you get another one.” According to Jordan, recruiters often pressure students by telling them again and again that the military is the best or only way to pay for an education. “That type of stuff gets me mad,” he said.
But whether the experiences of these students are widespread is hard to say. While Jamal and Jordan estimated that there are about four to six military recruiters operating in the school in any given week, other students at A. Philip Randolph said that the number is really much lower and that recruiters aren’t much of a problem. “They don’t bother nobody,” several sophomores and juniors, including Laishante Taylor, 17, agreed. Others said that recruiters tended to remain outside of the school, soliciting students on nearby street corners. Eleventh grader Devon, a fast-talking 17-year-old still awaiting a final growth spurt, assured that recruiters “only stop tough guys,” so he and his friends had nothing to worry about.
The experiences of students also vary greatly from one school to the next. Principles and teachers have significant discretion in deciding how much access they want to give recruiters. Some are very welcoming, inviting Army, Air Force, Marine and Navy recruiters into schools warmly and frequently; still others, military officials and recruiters say, do their best to bar recruiters completely, or relegate them to twice-annual appearances at large career fairs—the minimum required by federal law. According to both the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and the National Defense Authorization Act for the Fiscal Year 2002, schools are required to give military recruiters the “same access” to students as they give to other educational institutions and perspective employers—nothing more and nothing else.
According to one sergeant, a Marine recruiter and member of the U.S. Marine Corps, who asked that his name not be printed, said the situation has changed substantially since the war began, with parents and teachers increasingly resistant to giving recruiters school access. The Marine, who now spends his afternoons standing in full uniform with three or four others on busy Midtown intersections, said the military faced a similar situation back during Desert Storm and Vietnam. “It all just depends on the time,” he said. “It’s real, and kids are taking casualties. If there was no war going on, the teachers wouldn’t have a problem.” As for interacting with kids, he says, “we only see them maybe now and then.”
But local anti-recruiting activist groups like Youth Activists-Youth Allies (Ya-Ya) and the NYCLU report that military recruiters have not been dissuaded by opposition to the war, and still get far more access to students than other organizations. Amy Wagner, Executive Director of the Ya-Ya Network, a non-profit, city-wide child advocacy organization composed primarily of high school students and recent graduates of color, described how recruiters at William Cullen Bryant High School in Queens to Dewitt Clinton High School in the Bronx show up in big, flashy vans, blaring music to attract interest. It’s almost like drug dealers—showing their bling to impress and recruit—except instead of narcotics, they’re pushing service to country. At Bryant, she said, recruiters set up obstacle courses in the gym, taking over regularly scheduled classes, which isn’t allowed. Students can participate for a simple fee: turning over their personal contact information to recruiters.
While distractions from class time and information gathering are problematic, Wagner said that the organization tends to receive the most complaints from students “who get harassed walking down the halls.” She described one former employee who had very long dreadlocks. “He said that several times a week, the recruiter would grab him by the dreadlocks and say, ‘So when are you going to cut those off and come join the military?’ He found that incredibly offensive.” The presence in hallways is augmented by other contact points, such as subway stations near schools and, of course, calls at home. One marine recruiter we spoke with said that it isn’t atypical for a potential enlistee to be called multiple times a day, every day, to keep tabs on any potential changes in intention. That’s a lot more than any potential college or employer is willing to do.
School Ownership is the Goal
For the military, recruiting is a $4 billion industry overseen by teams of market researchers, advertising agencies and recruiters, all working furiously to find willing bodies to fill empty boots on the ground. According to army spokesman Douglas Smith, the military spent an average of $16,199 for each of its 73,373 individual recruits in 2005. That’s nearly $5,000 more than what the city spent on education per student in 2004 . Yes, that’s right: The country can spend more to recruit a child for the military in a given year than to educate her.
Interestingly, statistics show that the number of accessions (military-speak for people who actually shipped to training) who were in high school at the time of enlistment has been declining since long before the war in Iraq, not only in raw numbers, but as a percentage of total recruits. In 2000, 19,044 accessions were high school seniors. That number had dropped to 11,302 in 2004, and stood at just 9,772 in 2006. That means that only about 10 percent of accessions last year signed their contracts while in high school, raising questions about whether results justify the military’s effort. According to the New York City Department of Education’s Division of Assessment and Accountability survey on the post-high school plans of 2005 graduates, only 1.2 percent planned to join the military services, while 63 percent planned to attend either a two or four-year-college.
“The focus on high school has changed over the past decade, with so many young people now wanting to go to college” explained S. Douglas Smith, Department of the Army Civilian Public Affairs Officer at the U.S. Army Recruiting Command in Fort Knox. “As a result, young men and women may see the army as a barrier.” In response, Smith said that the military does not concentrate as much on high school juniors and seniors as it did back in the 1980s or ’90s. “Now, we talk to the older age groups that may have stepped out.”
However, The School Recruiting Program Handbook, printed in 2004 by United States Army Recruiting Command, tells a very different story. The handbook, designed as a guide outlining regulatory requirements as well as successful recruiting techniques, begins with the following iterative: “School ownership is the goal.” Recruiters are advised that they must “ensure total market penetration” with “an army presence in all secondary schools.” The guide also advises recruiters to become as involved in school communities as possible, participating in social events and volunteering their service in order to make themselves indispensable. They are even told to always carry gifts to give administrators—from pens to mugs to donuts—to establish good will.
A 2004 Boston Globe article, which was among the first to introduce the public to the manual, reported that “officers are trained to analyze students and make a pitch according to what will strike a motivational chord.” Throughout the book, the army is described as a “product which can be sold” using an “effective sales approach.” Recruiters are even told to prepare themselves so that they will be ready to act if a high school senior experiences an unexpected disappointment, like not getting a job or being denied scholarship money to go to colllege. Education incentives should be pushed, it states, “to encourage college-capable individuals to defer their college until they have served in the army.”
Many counter-recruiters also accuse the military of making promises to students that are either exaggerations of the truth—or outright falsehoods. In an effort to set students straight about these so-called “military myths,” the Ya-Yas run information workshops and distribute fliers that include statistics about how much money recruits actually receive towards school following service. Fewer than half of enrollees who pay into the GI bill actually receive any money at all, they say, due to individuals’ non-completion of full enlistment contracts or because of disqualifications for receiving a “general discharge under honorable circumstance” instead of an “honorable discharge” for things like not paying child support, talking openly about being gay or not meeting weight requirements. In addition, the organization distributes information about high rates of racism and rape in the military, as well as information about the high levels of unemployment, disability and homelessness among former enlistees.
“I just think that there’s a lack of education of young people about what’s going on,” Jessica Rivere, a current Ya-Ya member who graduated from Francis Lewis High School in Fresh Meadows, Queens in 2005, complained. “And I think that many students—including myself at the time—we didn’t know much about what was going on. And thinking about what military recruiters promise young people—they’re basically lying. And that is a problem. If they were targeting these neighborhoods and fulfilling all that they say they’re going to do and give, then me personally, I don’t think I’ll have as much a problem with it,” she explained. “But that’s not what they’re doing.”
Christine Feliciano, a current Ya-Ya member who has just graduated from Christopher Columbus High in the Bronx, said that the war was also rarely mentioned by recruiters, who told students that their chances of being deployed overseas were slim. “They didn’t want to talk a lot about the war,” Christine said. “When people would ask, they’re like, ‘No, I don’t know. There’s a slight chance, but it’s likely you’ll just be, you know, running computers or something.’” That simply isn’t the case.
Counter-recruiters also charge that the military is unequally targeting a particular demographic: minority students who come from low-income communities. Statistics show that while nationwide the majority of recruits are white—often coming from poor, rural areas across the country—the case is reversed in NYC. Here, recruits are much more likely to be African American or Hispanic than white. “In New York, it is clearly youth of color being targeted,” Wagner said with certainty.
But that’s a difficult charge to prove, especially in NYC, where, at the vast majority of public high schools, white students are in the minority and students are overwhelmingly poor. In 2005, the year of the most recently published statistics, only 14 percent of public high school students in the city were white, versus 35 percent black and 37 percent Hispanic. And over half of those students qualified as eligible for free lunches—often used as an indicator of poverty.
Evidence that recruiters specifically target minority-heavy and low-income schools has, until now, been for the most part anecdotal, relying mainly on the observations of advocate groups and students. According to Ari Rosmarin, Field Organizer at the NYCLU, the organization “has recently obtained recruiter school reports from many areas in New York that helps to illustrate the way that the military prioritizes its recruiting targets” through a Freedom of Information Act request over a year ago. But to bolster their case, the “Students or Soldiers?” coalition—which includes the NYCLU, NYCORE and Ya-Ya—has teamed up with the Manhattan Borough President’s Office to conduct a survey investigating the issue as part of its Project on Military Recruitment and Students’ Rights.
While the coalition is still processing the data, Wagner said that some trends have begun to stand out. “From what we’ve found from unofficial spot polling and from the data that’s available on the Board of Education website, it looks as though schools with large immigrant populations are heavily targeted.” She also said the data show that recruiters tend to target larger, general schools and to stay away from magnet schools and smaller, specialty schools where kids are more likely to go to college.
But military officials deny all charges that they specifically target certain groups. “There are a lot of myths out there about who we recruit and where from,” Smith explained. He says that recruiters simply can’t afford to target specific populations. “Our goal is to reach as many potential candidates as possible. We could not possibly meet our mission by targeting limited communities,” he said. “Our mission dictates that we focus on all potential schools, communities and populations. If we didn’t, we’d be putting ourselves at a huge disadvantage in achieving recruitment numbers.”
However, Smith did say that recruiters naturally spend more time at schools with larger populations, where there are more students to contact, as well as at schools that have been more “productive” in the past. “We’re like any other business,” Smith explained. “We’re like McDonald’s…[We’re] trying to give each recruiter a population that is large enough to recruit from.”
Emily Gockley, chief of advertising affairs for the NYC Recruiting battalion, echoed Smith’s words. “Our recruiters are expected to visit all high schools and colleges in the area,” she said, although the number sent to each school varies from station to station and school to school. Gockley also denied that the army specifically targets racial minorities or low-income communities. However, she did say that the military relies on “elaborate marketing segmentation analysis,” which uses a database of zip codes and other demographic information to determine which schools have a higher propensity for enlistment. “All companies do it,” Gockley assured. “Coca Cola, Ford…It’s just like in corporate America. We look for a target market, just like Ford sells to a target market. Granted, we sell a lifestyle, not a product.”
Gockley would not say precisely what types of demographic information are included or how the algorithm weighs certain factors. Nonetheless, she said that the military goes to extensive efforts to appeal to the demographic groups it believes it can most successfully recruit, and uses minority advertising to tailor messaging for Hispanic, African-American, Asian and Arab markets. “It only makes sense…Why would you want to give them a message that they’re not going to listen to?” she asked. “The marketing guy provides the intelligence, just like the military. You want to find out where the enemy’s at and concentrate your forces on attacking the same market.” How exactly that differs from targeting minorities is hard to say.
Those who suspect profiling also site a second provision of the No Child Left Behind Act that requires all schools to provide the military with 11th and 12th grade students’ names, home phone numbers and addresses—unless they formally “opt out” by signing a form. The Joint Advertising Marketing Research & Studies (JAMRS) database then stores this information, along with a student’s racial and socioeconomic data, to share with local recruits. Critics ask again and again why, if race and class don’t matter, the database would include such information.
The Re-Militarized Zone
Students at targeted schools say that much of the problem is that, while recruiters may be present multiple times per week—often armed with flashy cars, cool activities and slick sales pitches—students are presented with few other options
“We don’t ever see other recruiters,” complained Michael Mollis, 16, an 11th grader at A. Philip Randolph. He believes that the military targets minority students “cuz most of them are struggling.”
Jessica Rivere spent the beginning of her high school career as a Junior ROTC. She was most impressed at first, she said, by the prestige and status that came along with wearing the uniform. “You know, you see these young people looking sharp, with a bunch of ribbons, and you don’t even know what you got them from, but it looks cool. And I was intrigued and I wanted to be a part of that, so I joined.”
She enjoyed the physical and leadership training aspects of the program, but most of all, “it just meant that I was a part of something that most students weren’t a part of.” When Jessica left JROTC during her senior year, she said she felt very isolated. “There wasn’t a lot more going on in the school, you know, that students could feel a part of,” she said. She blamed scheduling complications, caused by overcrowding at the school for making joining other clubs so difficult. “JROTC was one of the only programs that was scheduled in the school day, so you’ll definitely be a part of something,” she said.
Later, Jessica told me, “I don’t think that the military recruiters should be in schools at a time when young people are trying to figure out for themselves what they want to do in life. When that’s all they’re getting, when colleges aren’t reaching out to these neighborhoods and people of color in these schools and all their opportunities is just to go the Army, I think there’s something wrong with that.” She said that her mission is not only to kick military recruiters out of schools, but “also to encourage principles to outreach to these colleges and invite and give people different opportunities.”
Wagner was particularly harsh on high schools for failing to help provide students with opportunities for the future. “Our schools are being militarized. Recruiters don’t belong in schools. It lets too many schools off of their obligation to make sure that young people have post-high school plans,” she said. She argued that the military presence provides an easy way out for school administrators who would otherwise be forced to find other options for children in their schools. “Many schools use the recruiter as a place to send the students they don’t quite know what to do with,” she said.