Clutching a framed photo of her stepson who was killed in Iraq, Tia Steele made a tearful plea to the Baltimore County school board.
Steele, a pacifist, explained that she had been surprised when her stepson enlisted in the Marines after being recruited while attending Dulaney High School. So Steele begged the school board to better educate parents about how they can keep information about their children from military recruiters.
Steele learned the hard way about a provision of the No Child Left Behind Act that received little publicity when the landmark education bill passed in 2001: Every public school district in the country is required to pass along to recruiters the names, phone numbers and addresses of students -- unless the student or a parent specifically requests otherwise in advance.
Different districts use different means for notifying parents of their right to take their children off the list that goes to the recruiters, and this variance has sparked disputes and congressional efforts to modify the provision.
In New Mexico, the American Civil Liberties Union is suing a school district for invasion of privacy, claiming it did not adequately inform parents of the opportunity to "opt out" of the requirement and keep their children's information private. Officials at the Maryland ACLU say they have received inquiries about the issue and are monitoring how school districts in the state are notifying parents of their rights.
In Anne Arundel County, parents are raising complaints with the school board.
Congressional Democrats have introduced a bill that would reverse the provision by requiring parents or students to choose to have information released to military recruiters. The Student Privacy Protection Act has been referred to a House subcommittee.
"It gives parents the opportunity to say, 'Yes, I want my child to receive that information,' and say, 'I want to be a part of the process,'" said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill. "On the other hand, with opt-out, the information just flows and the parent has no clue.
"We are pushing for this because many recruiters have become very aggressive in trying to meet their goals and sometimes have gone too far," he said, adding that the bill is not meant to prevent students from talking to recruiters if they choose to do so.
Principals uncertain Dale Rauenzahn, executive director of student support services for Baltimore County schools, said a parent's request that a child's information be kept private is entered into the school district's computer system. Military recruiters who request student information are supposed go to the district's student data office, which produces a list -- minus the students who have opted out.
Rauenzahn said military recruiters are entitled only to name, address and telephone number, and not other information that other groups, such as college recruiters, can access.
Suzy Filbert, a speech pathologist in the district, said she has worked at schools where principals aren't sure how to handle parents' requests that information not be given to recruiters.
In Baltimore County, a handbook is sent home at the start of each school year. In that book is a paragraph telling parents that if they want information on their children withheld from the military and other outside organizations, they must send a request in writing to the principal of their child's school by Oct. 1.
But, critics say, parents often don't read the handbook. Rauenzahn said about 40 percent of parents of high school students return a page from the handbook signifying they have received it.
In Albuquerque, N.M., that method wasn't sufficient to parents and the ACLU. Many parents didn't know about their privacy options before the lists went out to recruiters, said Peter Simonson, the executive director for the ACLU of New Mexico. "What we're asking for is not just notice but timely and meaningful notice," he said. "The parents can't exercise that right if they're notified about it in some obscure part of a student handbook."
Parents in Baltimore County were asking for an opt-out form to be printed on the reverse side of a student's emergency contact form. That form must be returned by each student at the start of the school year.
Filbert, the speech pathologist, also suggested that county schools consider using a stand-alone form similar to one being used in Montgomery County.
At its Sept. 2 meeting, the Baltimore County school board declined to act on the matter. Superintendent Joe A. Hairston said later that the school would mail opt-out notices to the families of juniors and seniors; freshmen and sophomores would receive them in class. The school system also will place a link on its Web site to the information in the student handbook and televise an announcement on its cable channel.
Hairston said the district had been researching options for more than a month, and he didn't want to appear to be responding to special interest groups. "I did not want to allow school grounds to be the battleground for philosophical issues," he said.
A Marine recruiting instructor in the Baltimore area said he has no problem with the district's taking steps to better inform parents. In some ways, it makes his job easier, said Master Gunnery Sgt. Mark Holman, by eliminating phone calls to students who are not interested in the military.
But no method will be foolproof, he said. "I think you're always going to have parents say, 'Well, how did you get my son or daughter's name or number?' no matter what practice or act you put in place. You're never going to have 100 percent [of] everybody aware," he said.
But Holman said that the measure being considered by Congress, if approved, would hinder him in doing his job, for the same reason that critics don't like the opt-out policy.
"Parents are inundated with thousands of things every day. It's one more thing for them to follow up on," he said. Besides, he added, most parents accept the idea of recruiters contacting their children. "The majority expect it, and they know. I think they welcome it," he said.
Some Baltimore County residents say schools that open their doors to military recruiters should also provide access for those who have other opinions about the military.
"I was in the Navy during the Vietnam War. I am well familiar with what it means to be in the military as a young person," said Jim Baldridge, a county resident and a member of Veterans for Peace, Baltimore Chapter. "My concern is that young people today aren't being told what their real options are, while being bombarded with high-pressure, slick recruiting information."
Baldridge said he and others want to talk about their military experiences to students and also make sure students are informed of other post-high school options, ways to get money for college or to get job training, if that's what the students are interested in.
Another chance Tia Steele, who now works for the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker social justice and peace organization, said that before her stepson, David M. Branning, died, she had no idea No Child Left Behind required schools to provide student information to military recruiters.
She doesn't know whether an opt-out list or information on other options would have changed her stepson's mind about joining the Marines. Still, she said, publicizing these issues would have given her an additional opportunity for discussion.
Branning, who graduated in 2001 from Dulaney High School, was killed in November during fighting in Fallujah. He was 21.
Steele's concern, she said, is making sure that parents are aware of the privacy issues and that students know they have options. "Call me an uninformed parent, but the point is that there were things we took for granted," she said. "I don't want anybody else to make that mistake."
firstname.lastname@example.org Sun reporter Liz F. Kay contributed to this article.