During the first week of school, high school students have a lot of decisions to make: How they will pay for school supplies, what clothes they will wear on the first day, how they will remember the combination to their locker.
But one of the most important decisions a junior or senior can make is whether their personal information should be given to the federal government for use by military recruiters.
Students have until the end of September to decide whether they want to "opt out" of providing their names, addresses and telephone numbers to the military. But, say members of two local organizations — American Friends Service Committee and Recruiter Watch PDX — many students don't realize they have that choice.
That's why an "Opt Out" street party is planned near Madison and Jefferson high schools Thursday. Punctuated with an impromptu poetry competition by emcee Mic Crenshaw, of Suckapunch and Hungry Mob, the parties will include "street teams" who will talk to students about the "realities" of military recruiting and give them forms that students can sign denying recruiters access to their information.
The parties will be in Glenhaven Park, north of Madison High School, at 7:30 a.m. Thursday and on the corner of North Kerby and Sumner streets, across from Jefferson High School, at 3 p.m. Thursday.
"It's a new strategy, and it has shown its potential for young people to mobilize around this issue," said Pam Phan, youth program director for American Friends Service Committee.
Another strategy offered is a blog set up on Myspace.com. The Web site is www.myspace.com/rwpdxcoalition.
Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, school districts are required to provide military recruiters the same access to schools, students and student information that college recruiters and potential employers receive. However, students can legally refrain from providing the information to the districts.
Schools can determine the time, place and method of recruitment activities, but, in the Portland Public Schools, teachers, counselors and administrators aren't prohibited from providing military recruitment information to students or from referring a student to a recruitment office. However, recruiting literature cannot be distributed during a regular class session.
Schools can also provide, at a student's request, transcripts, records and references to military offices and institutions for scholarships, appointments or enlistment for military service.
But recruiters don't always follow the rules set by the schools, noted Matt Simpson, a law student at Lewis & Clark College who often answers the hot line for Recruiter Watch PDX, a grassroots organization formed last summer to address military abuses in the Portland area.
Some recruiters may contact students as early as middle school, Simpson said. Students told him that recruiters followed them into restrooms to talk to them, and others have said they were "harassed" over the phone and at home.
"This really is a privacy issue," Simpson added. "It's strange for any personal information to be handed out to anyone."
At a similar "Opt Out" event last year, student reaction was mixed, Simpson said.
"Some people don't want to talk to strangers about something so personal," he said. "But some were genuinely interested.
Last year, the parents/guardians of 47 percent of the juniors and seniors in the Portland high schools and alternative schools signed a form during school registration that restricted the students' information from being distributed to the military, said Bob Lawrence, senior strategic communications officer for the school district.
Of 6,902 juniors and seniors, 3,237 "opted out," Lawrence said. That number has steadily increased since December 2003, the first year that the statistics were kept. In that year, only 9 percent refused to provide their personal information.
Students have complained about over-eager recruiters, Lawrence said, and those complaints may be referred to the school district's attorney and sent to the recruiters. Few students file an actual complaint, but those that are filed are taken seriously, Lawrence said.
Although the district can do little if a recruiter contacts a student off-campus, district officials still would like to know if recruiters are targeting areas where students congregate — a mall or a certain business, for example.
"We may want to notify the principal so students and parents can be told," Lawrence said.
The students Phan works with at the American Friends Service Committee are "very passionate" about the issue, she said. But others recognize that the military offers opportunities that some students may not have when they leave school.
Among those opportunities, noted Gary Stauffer public affairs officer for the Portland Recruiting Battalion for the U.S. Army, is up to $71,000 for college (depending on the length of service and other requirements), skills training and a "chance for adventure."
However, Simpson noted, only about 19 percent of those leaving the military ever use the college tuition option.
"Their lives are in a different place; more people are interested in getting a job," he said.
The Army offers skills training in more than 150 different careers, Stauffer said, including administration, mechanical, aircraft maintenance, infantry, artillery, military police, medical and metallurgy. In addition, recruits with musical interests can "join the Army and be in a band," he said.
"It's a chance to do something different with your life," Stauffer added. "You can travel all over the world in the Army."
Recruiters receive lists of students' names, addresses and telephone numbers sent to their local recruiting headquarters. Contacts begin in the fall and are followed up in the spring, according to Stauffer.
Visits to the schools usually are worked out by contacting someone designated in the school to work with recruiters. Unannounced and unscheduled visits aren't allowed in Portland schools, and visits are limited to between 10 minutes and an hour.
"Sometimes we bring active-duty soldiers from Fort Lewis, Wash. to the schools to talk to students about the day-to-day life of a soldier," Stauffer said.
Simpson said he has also heard of military helicopters landing on school grounds, giving students a thrill.
When asked how he felt about the efforts to notify students of their "opt out" option, Stauffer took it in stride.
"America is a wonderful country, and that's their right," he said. "The soldiers and the military are there to protect that right."