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The War on Our School-Children


In 2002, Maxine Wright, then Age 9, circulated a petition in her fourth grade class at Thatcher Montessori School in Milton, Massachusetts. She had written a letter to Senator Ted Kennedy condemning the impending war on Iraq, and she wanted her fellow students to join her. Many did. One day, she asked her father, Daryl Wright, a Director of Knowledge Management at YouthBuild USA, to sign the petition. Surprised by her relatively autonomous activity, he did. The letter is one of many that flooded Senator Kennedy’s office. His wrath at the war came partly from this outpouring of sentiment.

During Saturday errands in 2002, Maxine and her father went to the bank. Outside a group of activists had set up a table for the Dorchester People for Peace. “That’s really good,” she said. They went over, signed up and went off together for the February 2003 march against the war in New York City.

The war began, and Maxine felt dispirited. She turned her attentions elsewhere.

Daryl persisted. Dorchester People for Peace (DPFP) continued to reach out to their community, to bring soldiers recently back from Iraq or else the family members of dead soldiers (Fernando Suarez del Solar) to talk about the events on the ground and in their hearts. They worked for the election of Felix Arroyo, who is not only the first Latino city councilor in Boston, but was also dubbed one of two “Peace Councilors.”

In January 2003, a week after taking office, Arroyo joined a fast for peace. “I am already being confronted with the harsh realities of inevitable budget cuts,” he said, “I simply cannot support using valuable human and financial resources toward a military engagement. As an elected official, a parent, and a community activist, I would like to lend my voice to the anti-war movement.”

DPFP held a day-long retreat to assess the movement. At the gathering a woman who worked for the Boston public school system told her comrades that the school system had been forced by federal mandate to submit the names and contact information for students to military recruiters. This inflamed those at the gathering, and they felt the need to do something about it.

Becky Pierce of DPFP researched questions of privacy and school policy on military recruitment. She, like others across the country who are involved in counter-recruitment, found that the current sanction for this violation of privacy is George Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, passed in 2001 (as well as the National Defense Authorization Act of 2002). Section 9528 of the No Child Left Behind law demands that educational institutions “shall provide, on a request made by military recruiters or an institution of higher education, access to secondary school students names, addresses, and telephone listings.”

When the Act passed, with the close collaboration of Senator Ted Kennedy, most educators took exception to the harsh regime of standardized tests and the punitive treatment of teachers. No-body paid much attention to Section 9528. Even as Bush signed the bill into law in January 2002, it had been formulated before 9/11, before the war on terror sent the US military from Basilan Island (Philippines) to Afghanistan to Iraq to Colombia. As euphemisms like “stop-loss” try to trap the enlisted army into longer tours of duty, and as the Pentagon calls in all its reserves, there is a need to bring in more people to take up arms.

Immigrants have been a fertile field for recruiters, who make all kinds of outlandish promises to get the cards signed, and, of course, the contingent class provides the other field for their work. The “poverty draft” is engaged to draw in more and more young people to bear the cost for the policy of zealots.

DPFP saw that the No Child Left Behind provisions violated the human rights of children to education, because it integrated the military into the schools and allowed this immense institution of impossible promises to enter the homes of vulnerable people. The 1948 Declaration on Human Rights declares that education should be for the “full development of the human personality,” and it should “promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace” (article 26).

This language is similar to that in the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, where we learn that education must prepare the child “for responsible life in a free society, in the spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance, equality of sexes, and friendship among all peoples, ethnic, national and religious groups and persons of indigenous origin” (article 29). In 2000, the UN General Assembly passed a protocol on children in war that expressly condemned the attempt by states to recruit children below the age of 18, indeed it even asked that this age be raised to prevent the distortion of the educational years.

The Pentagon’s need for soldiers overrides these values that have been formally accepted by the US government – the state now promises to fund higher education if you gamble your life on its battlefields. For the military recruiters, war does not begin on the battlefield. As Marine Corps Master Sergeant John Bailey told Congress, “Our war starts at the school.”

DPFP’s Becky Pierce learnt of a group in Vermont, and another in Jamaica Plain (Boston), that had identified a loophole in the law. Section 9528 (a) (2) says that the “secondary school student or the parent of the student may request” that the private contact information of the student may “not be released without prior written parental consent.”

A campaign developed out of this, because now DPFP and other groups have begun to reach out to students and parents to tell them about the law, and to ask them to send in a postcard that refuses permission to pass on this information to the military. DPFP and other groups have been hitting youth conferences and other places where youth and parents gather.

One student, at the Boston Arts Academy and the Fenway High School, both small pilot institutions, put up posters and distributed flyers on military recruitment and No Child Left Behind. The students flooded the principle’s office to get off the list.

In late 2002, the American Association of School Administrators’ chief lobbyist Bruce Hunter told Mother Jones magazine, “We feel [that section 9528] is a clear departure from the letter and spirit of the current student privacy laws.” Privacy advocates and others are also incensed by the violations of law. They are an important ally, but they don’t seem to be able to do anything.

Most schools need to hear from parents and students by September 30, or else they will have to submit their names to the military. Our work is cut out for us. DPFP has a postcard that they will send anyone who wants one (email: [email protected]). Hopefully school districts across the country will refuse to allow our children to become fodder for the Pentagon and the lusts of the Bush administration. But they won’t move unless we move them.

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