Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford -
The counter recruitment effort in U-46 School District, which is the second largest school district in Illinois after Chicago, was begun several years ago by Bettina Perillo. She is a member of Highland Avenue Church of the Brethren in Elgin, and a member of Fox Valley Citizens for Peace and Justice. The effort began with a counter recruitment table at Elgin High School once a month.
As more volunteers joined in and the work gained sponsorship from the two above-named groups, the effort ran into criticism and active opposition from school administrators. Supporters went to the school district board meetings to express the need for counter recruitment in the high schools, meetings were held with school district officials including the school district lawyer, and meetings were held with members of the administration at Elgin High School. With help from AFSC in Chicago, who gave advice and helped speak to the school district board about the legal requirement for equal access to high schools that are visited by military recruiters, the counter recruitment effort was given equal access.
Since then, counter recruitment tables have been at Elgin High School and Larkin High School (also in Elgin) once a month, and for a couple of years also were at South Elgin High School.
Specific concerns at a middle school
Once my son began attending middle school (two and a half years ago, he is now attending high school) I realized how much the military has access even into lower levels of schools in the district. I began to request meetings with school administrators and school district officials to express that concern.
The middle school principal avoided meeting with me, after I first called to express concerns that I saw military banners hanging in a hallway to the school library during the first open house we attended at the school. After the school year started I was present in the school more regularly, I saw military recruitment posters hanging in one of the bathrooms, found out that all students were required to attend a military-led celebration of Veteran’s Day, and witnessed military recruiters from all of the branches of the military at a career fair.
It took 10 months to get a meeting with the principal, after numerous telephone conversations, messages, and letters requesting the meeting. Through the phone conversations, it became clear that the principal was less than honest in his responses to my questions–one of the first of which was if military recruiters or military personnel were ever at the school. He said that they were not, but his answer was patently false as I realized once I personally saw military personnel in the school hallways and saw military recruiters at a career fair.
It was only after I complained his supervisor in the school district administration that the principal’s secretary finally called me to schedule a meeting. The face-to-face meeting was terrible, however. The principal did not listen to my concerns, did not give any indication that my concerns had any value or merit, would not acknowledge that a parent has a right to express such concerns, and even told me forcefully and with open antagonism that he would never let me as a parent change anything in “his” school.
I managed to get one concession from him, that if military recruiters were at an upcoming career fair I could bring our counter recruitment table. I followed up with an email confirming that I and another volunteer would bring the counter recruitment table to the career fair, and asked for details about time and set up. He did not get back in touch with me until the evening before the day of the career fair, when he called me at home at 7:30 p.m. to say that he had spent much of the day with the school district lawyer exploring whether he was obliged to have a counter recruitment table at the career fair.
The lawyer evidently told him that he had to allow the counter recruitment table at the career fair, but that he could require a review of every piece of material we hand out. The principal told me that I must have a copy of each piece at the school office before school began the following morning. When I asked him if all the other tables were required to have their materials vetted, he said “not this year,” and that he was requiring this for our table because counter recruitment was a new presence at the career fair. I asked if he had vetted other groups’ materials in the past and he gave no answer.
I gathered up a copy of each piece of material we use for counter recruitment and delivered the packet to the school office by 8:30 the next morning. I sent the principal an email saying that we would be arriving with our table at the start of the career fair that evening. I warned the volunteer who was going with me that we might face an antagonistic atmosphere, so that she would be prepared. We agreed that if the antagonism became too fierce we would leave rather than cause an incident in front of children.
However, the experience of the career fair was actually very good, to our surprise. The school district staff who were present were very welcoming of our table, and the children were very interested in our materials. We even ran out of many pieces and had to go make some extra copies because we gave out so much information to children and their parents. Some parents thanked us for being there. At the end of the evening the principal approached our table and, again to my surprise, was cordial and friendly. He acted as if we had never had any antagonistic encounters and communications before that evening!
The same day as the career fair, in an interesting coincidence, the school district administrator who supervised the middle schools and high schools had a meeting with me. I let him know of the train of events, and he was very supportive and spent an hour talking about the situation at the middle school. He even asked me to send him an email documenting the difficult interactions with the principal. I have to think that he must have had some conversation with the principal following that meeting, which caused the change in attitude and demeanor on the principal’s part.
However, when I asked if the district would consider an “opt out” form to help parents express their wishes about the military in the schools, he said that would not be a possibility because of the work involved for district staff–this despite my listing to him examples of the numerous permission forms that parents routinely are asked to fill out by schools, teachers, and the district.
Parents for a Say
The difficulty of influencing the middle school principal and his insistence on promoting the military without consulting parents prompted me to float an idea for “Parents for a Say about the Military in Our Schools” or “Parents for a Say,” for short.
I proposed the idea to Fox Valley Citizens for Peace and Justice, and to Highland Avenue Church of the Brethren, as the two groups sponsoring the counter recruitment effort. After a couple of meetings with the leadership of both groups, they both agreed to sponsor Parents for a Say as a way for parents to express their concerns directly to school administrators and teachers.
The school district has not acknowledged Parents for a Say, and has not given any response to the forms we have been using. I have not kept track of how many–or even if–other parents are utilizing the forms. We have given out many copies of the forms at Highland Avenue Church of the Brethren, at counter recruitment tables, and at some peace events in the community. We also have posted the forms online via a Facebook page and are in process to offer the forms in Spanish as well as English.
The next step for Parents for a Say is to leaflet at peace events and at the public library, to approach the school district board in order to publicize the campaign to the board members, and to write letters to the editor in support of Parents for a Say, sending them to the newspapers that cover this area.
Experience at high school
My son now attends an academy program at one of the district high schools, and I have used Parents for a Say forms to communicate with the principal and his teachers our instruction not to promote the military to our son. The experience has been a night-and-day contrast with that at the middle school.
The principal called me personally and talked on the phone for something like 45 minutes after receiving the form, and was very friendly and sympathetic to our point of view. He was very interested in the counter recruitment effort and and acknowledged its value.
Several of my son’s teachers have contacted me to acknowledge our wishes and to assure me that they will comply. One offered to host my son in his classroom during the school’s Veteran’s Day assembly, even though the principal had already indicated my son would be given a spot to do homework in the school office during that time. My son told me that there was another student there during the assembly, so that I know at least one other family has requested similar accommodation–in a school with hundreds of students that’s not much, but it is something! Some of the teachers have checked in with us about upcoming assignments that may touch on military subjects or content, again in a collaborative way without antagonism.
This good high school experience gives me some assurance that Parents for a Say may be useful to other parents, and may provide a tool for use in other schools.