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Schools' Policy Banning Military Recruiting Leaves Questions; Students at Risk

The Portland School Board voted in May for a resolution that softens its 1995 ban against military recruiting in its schools. In requires staff who are advising students to inform them of the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy. But the new mandate lacks guidelines to assure it will empower, not abuse students.
Terse Addition to Schools' Policy
Banning Military Recruiting
Leaves Questions Unanswered, Students at Risk

On Monday, May 21, the Portland School Board voted unanimously in favor of a resolution that softens its ban against military recruiting in Portland (Oregon) Public Schools. For the first time since 1995, teachers and counselors will be permitted at their "professional discretion, [to provide] information [on] ... opportunities in the military, or [refer] a student to a recruitment office." This "clarification" - as the new resolution refers to itself - of the 1995 policy mandates that the staff person advising a student regarding enlistment in the armed forces must also inform that student of the "military's policy regarding sexual minorities." However, the school policy has no guidelines to assure this disclosure will protect or empower students rather than insult and abuse them.

The unusual restriction on military recruiters by Portland Schools was controversial from the beginning, when it was proposed by School Board member Marc Abram in response to the adoption the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy early in the Clinton Administration. It was adopted as two resolutions: the first prohibited recruiting in Portland Schools by employers with discriminatory practices, the second labeled the U.S. Armed Forces as a practitioner of discrimination against sexual minorities.

The policy recently came under attack when Derry Jackson, Sr., the only person of color on the school board, joined with conservative member Ron Saxton to propose a change in the anti-recruiting policy. Like the compromise resolution that passed, the Jackson/Saxton draft also referred to itself as a "clarification" of the six-year-old policy. And it introduced the idea of "[t]eachers and counselors ... [providing] information about the military's policy with regard to gays and lesbians." But that proposal, which was presented to the Board earlier this spring, would have allowed schools to arrange "for students' voluntary meetings ... with military representatives." The resolution adopted May 21 maintains the ban against such overt recruitment on campus.

The May 21st "clarification" does not refer to any particulars of the "don't ask don't tell" policy, nor does it offer any suggestions as to what or how a student should be told of that policy. The only reference to that armed forces' policy is contained entirely in the resolution's third paragraph, which reads,
"3. Any district employee providing information or referral under 1 or 2 above or responding to other inquiries regarding military enlistment will advise the student about the military's policy regarding sexual minorities."

--No Public Input on the Adopted Resolution--
Before the Board voted on the discrimination/recruiting policy change, it took public testimony, but only form a few people, due to time limitations. Of the two high school students and four adults who spoke, only one adult opposed the ban on recruiting. However, the time allotted for public input was filled-up by sign-up-by-phone several days before the board meeting. Though the compromise proposal, which was developed by board member Sue Hagmeier with the support of chair Debbie Menashe, had received coverage in the media, the actual text of it was not generally available to the public until the start of the meeting where it was adopted. So concerned citizens went to the meeting, apparently, to address the established policy or the original (i.e., Jackson/Saxton) proposal to change it. But the Board never voted on that original proposal. Nor did it directly discuss it in the meeting, even so far as to amend it or officially withdraw it from consideration. As it happened then, none of the public testimony at the meeting favored or opposed the proposal that was actually under consideration that night; not one person who spoke even acknowledged the compromise that the School Board members were about to adopt.

--School Staff to Speak of "Sexual Minorities" When Advising Students--
In the face of many urgent matters before them - including the need to hire a new superintendent as a result of their recent decision to force Ben Canada to resign effective at the end of June - the Board members may have hoped they could tidily put this issue behind them by rushing to pass this compromise proposal. The reality, however, is that the 1995 policy simply forbade recruiting from taking place on campus in any form, and placed no need upon school employees to talk with students about the military whatsoever, whereas this "clarification" explicitly requires that when either a staff person or a student initiates a discussion about enlistment, the staff person must speak of the military's policy on its gay, lesbian, and bisexual personnel. But the resolution makes no mention of the breadth or tone with which the information is to be delivered to a student. While freeing the Board from the public appearance of complicity with discrimination, the "clarification" does not even require students be told that the Portland Schools officially object to the military's discriminatory policy.

--"Clarification" Lacks Clear Guidelines for Implementation-
So it remains to be seen how the policy will be implemented; that is, how the administrative staff will interpret this new "clarification" and what the teaching and counseling staff will actually say to the students. Will there be any precautions outlined so that a closeted gay student who has been "advised" of the military's policy will not be likely to walk away thinking that s/he isn't good enough for the military? Or will the guidelines (if the administrative staff develop any) be firm enough that even a hurried or not-so-gay-friendly counselor will provide clear and full disclosure of both the military's and the school's policies? For example, will the students be told how the military has actually enforced its "don't ask don't tell" policy? And will each "advised" student be told that, regardless of her/his sexual identity, if s/he enlists and is subsequently accused of being gay, bisexual, or lesbian, or of having such intentions or experiences even once, that s/he may be reprimanded with a less-than-honorable discharge from the military, which could negatively affect the rest of one's life?

Further evidence that there are still loose ends to this issue arose at a conversation in the lobby of the administration building after the passage of the "compromise clarification". About ten "refugees" from the meeting stood in a circle still discussing the recruiting issue as the Board meeting in the auditorium moved onto other topics on its agenda. The circle included three or four recruiters who speculated that the newly adopted resolution meant that they now would be conferring with high school counselors by phone. And (although the text of the resolution speaks of school staff supplying references and transcripts to recruiters only to accommodate students' requests), at least one of the military men also anticipated getting students' names from counselors.

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