Military must back off its recruitment of teens

The United States has long participated in programs abroad that prevent the recruitment of child soldiers.

But the added strain of fulfilling enlistment quotas to carry out sustained U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan — without reinstituting a draft —has contributed to a rise in aggressive recruitment tactics and misconduct by recruiters here at home.

Such abuse by recruiters includes coercion, deception and false promises, and nullifies the voluntariness of youths’ enlistment, violating our international human rights obligations.

Under a U.N. protocol adopted by the United States in 2002, 17 is the absolute minimum age for military recruitment — even though the prevailing international standard is to prohibit the voluntary recruitment of children under the age of 18 into the military.

Indeed, 89 of the 128 countries that signed the U.N. protocol have a “straight-18” standard that sets 18 as the minimum age for recruitment.

In May 2008, the American Civil Liberties Union detailed the U.S. government’s failure to comply with its U.N. obligations. The ACLU found that the U.S. military continues to engage in tactics designed to recruit students under the age of 17, and fails to protect 17-year-old students from aggressive and abusive recruitment.

The ACLU also found that U.S. military recruitment tactics disproportionately target low-income youth and students of color.

After examining U.S. recruitment practices last year, a U.N. committee called on the U.S. to end military training in public schools and stop targeting racial minorities and children of low-income families and other vulnerable socio-economic groups for military recruitment.

In Georgia, there are clear indications of violations of the U.N. protocol. According to the No Child Left Behind Act, high schools must disclose student records of juniors and seniors, including students under 17, to military recruiters or risk losing federal aid, unless parents or students sign and submit a form requesting that the data be withheld.

Many Georgia schools do not make the exemption forms readily available to high school students and their parents. This is confirmed by Iraq war veteran Christopher Raissi, who was working as a Marine recruiter in Macon in 2005.

In Raissi’s words: “Recruiters are trained to work everyone in a high school, from freshmen to seniors. From my experience, the schools don’t give any notification to the parents about dissemination of students’ personal information to recruiters. If parents ignore their phone calls, recruiters are trained to track down every kid on the list, either at school or at home.”

Some Georgia high schools also encourage students, including students under 17, to take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, a military placement exam that serves as a military recruiting tool.

In fact, students have reported taking the test at 16, because high schools have administered the exam to the entire 11th grade. Sixteen-year-olds who have taken the ASVAB have subsequently been approached by military recruiters in their homes.

We’ve also seen attempts to open a military school in DeKalb County. The DeKalb Marine Corps Institute would expose students as young as 14 to military discipline, military culture and military training.

The DMCI would have been funded in part by the Marine Corps out of its recruitment budget and could have become a pipeline for targeted minority recruitment into the military.

The school originally was slated to open in August. Due to strong community opposition, the DeKalb County Board of Education announced in early June that it had postponed the opening date. While celebrating the victory, DeKalb parents called on the Board of Education not to revive this or similar proposals meant to militarize public school education.

Georgia state Sen. Nan Orrock (D-Atlanta) and state Rep. Stephanie Stuckey Benfield (D-Atlanta) have introduced a resolution that urges the Georgia Department of Education and Georgia schools to cease current and future programs and activities designed to recruit children under age 17.

The resolution also encourages Georgia to implement basic safeguards for recruitment of 17-year-olds by requiring that military recruitment activities be genuinely voluntary and carried out with the consent of the child’s parents or guardians.

To ensure children aren’t recruited without their parents’ consent, the resolution encourages Georgia to provide students and parents with “opt-out” forms that prohibit schools from disclosing students’ records to military recruiters as required by No Child Left Behind.

This resolution will be a first step on the path of ensuring that abusive military recruitment practices of the kind we have seen in Georgia will end, and that any recruitment of 17-year-olds is completely voluntary and carried out with the full consent of the child’s parents. America and Georgia must lead by example.

Azadeh Shahshahani is National Security/Immigrants’ Rights project director at the ACLU of Georgia. Tim Franzen is the Peace Building program director for the Southeastern Office of the American Friends Service Committee.