After 20 years of working in the nonprofit sector, I reentered the Los Angeles school district in 1997. I worked as a speech and language specialist in the district and at Theodore Roosevelt High School in East Los Angeles, the same school my mother attended at the onset of World War II.
A lot had changed since my mother attended Roosevelt. Back then, it was a racially diverse school. Now, Roosevelt is the largest in Los Angeles Unified, with more than 5,000 students on a multi track year-round system in a working poor neighborhood with more than 95 percent Latino/Chicano students.
I soon found out that a lot more than the ethnic population of the school had shifted through the years. Right away, I noticed uniformed military recruiters walking around the high school campus, freely talking to students. I looked to see if anyone else saw this, but quickly got the sense that this was considered normal. I tried to edge my way up close enough to hear what they were saying. The students seemed intrigued, and recruiters were promising money for college and bonus money. I felt helpless, and wasn’t informed enough to know what to say or do.
Ultimately, I became a founder of the Coalition Against Militarism in our Schools (CAMS), a grassroots organization of teachers, students, parents, and veterans in the Los Angeles area. CAMS began after the Sept. 11 attacks and before the Iraq war as an effort to inform and educate students and the community about the military recruitment that entices our young.
‘Yo soy el army’
After Sept. 11, I joined millions of people in global protest and concern as the Bush administration rushed to war. Military recruiters flooded campuses, riding in humvees blaring hip-hop music with “Yo Soy El Army” stickers and free T-shirts — or in Army vans with pull-up bars. I felt it was my moral duty and responsibility to do everything I could to stop the war and the military recruitment of youth. I knew that it would be schools like mine that would supply future soldiers to the military. This troubled me — as a parent who could only imagine losing a child to war, as a teacher who cared about the young lives I see each day, and as a peace and justice activist who believed that war was not the answer and our young should not be cannon fodder.
I began noticing visual manifestations of militarism everywhere from preschool centers to adult education schools, with the most pervasive being at the high schools. I saw National Guard calendars on the walls of the counseling offices, “Go Army” lanyards holding the faculty bathroom key, large cut-out military figures in the hallway, Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) displays with pictures and trophies, and even a Marine Corps insignia on a preschool dedication photo in the school office!
I wondered how this could be justified when the school district had a board policy called “Educating for Diversity” with strategies to create peaceful school climates, teach conflict resolution, critical thinking, problem solving, and foster positive human relations through dialogue and nonviolence. I asked teachers and staff what they thought about the military marketing in the schools and began to write articles in the union newsletter about it.
I learned that Roosevelt High School had a reputation as the number one marine-recruited school in the nation. Military recruiters swarmed the campus and approached students who were the most vulnerable and receptive to the pitch. Some students told me they received telephone calls every week, with military recruiters making unannounced home visits and following them around campus inviting them to lunch. Sometimes recruiters played on students’ emotions, telling youngsters that they would never make it in college, but they would make their families proud by enlisting.
But in January 2003, the climate at Roosevelt changed dramatically after an administrator drafted a school policy to set restrictions for military recruiter visits. It surprised the entire school community. She believed there needed to be reasonable restrictions to comply with the No Child Left Behind Act Section 9528 that gives military recruiters the same access as career and college representatives. She acknowledged the fact that military recruiters always had greater access at Roosevelt than career or college recruiters, and their presence did not support academic achievement targets. This school policy passed the School Leadership Council, making it the only high school out of 60 in the district with an explicit policy statement restricting military recruiter visits. Military recruiters could no longer approach individual students or make classroom presentations, and could only table at prearranged set times quarterly or less.
National and Local Connections
I plunged into counter-recruitment work in June of 2003 when I attended the first national Counter Recruitment Conference in Philadelphia. It was just what I needed, a national network of activists that provided support and mentoring. (Later, in 2005, we formed NNOMY, National Network Opposed to the Militarism of Youth, www.youthandthemilitary.org, a national organization working to unify and build solidarity in the movement.)
I had high expectations that others would join a counter-recruitment effort in Los Angeles. I announced a meeting in central LA, and told everyone I could reach in the peace and justice community. I went to peace and justice events with flyers and passed out brochures about myths of the military, but in the beginning there were only a handful of people. I wondered what was needed to get others involved. A breakthrough came when some members of the Human Rights Committee of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) became interested. I had never been active in the teachers’ union, feeling that student concerns along with social justice issues were often lost in the fight for teacher rights. But times were different, and there was a progressive movement in UTLA that joined with other labor unions to form Labor Against the War. The Human Rights Committee designed a T-shirt, “A War Budget Leaves Every Child Behind,” and enthusiastically supported my willingness to plan a teach-in to begin a dialogue about the war and its impact on our schools and students.
This alliance was significant because we had the networking contacts with the 44,000 teacher union members in the district, media contacts, and further clout when we made presentations to the school board. We advertised the teach-in in the union newsletter and distributed hundreds of flyers, which brought in a hundred teachers, students, parents and community members. This marked the beginning of a widespread teacher’s network covering all areas of the city and brought us visibility, which soon included a website (www.militaryfreeschools.org), an organizational brochure in English and Spanish, and a phone number (626-799-9118).
After a few months, we decided we needed to organize a large citywide event to create a broader network of people to focus on stopping militarism in schools. We planned an all-day conference for February 2004 at an inner-city school, aiming to share the strategies, resources, and experiences of students, education leaders, and peace and justice activists. We settled on a name, Coalition Against Militarism in Our Schools, continued our outreach to the schools and community, and developed a fundraising plan.
We also set out to inform members of the Los Angeles Board of Education about the military recruitment abuses occurring at many schools. Students, teachers, parents and community members testified about their experiences. Parents spoke in Spanish with an interpreter and told of unwanted phone calls by recruiters and the involuntary placement of their children into the military program, JROTC, and their difficulty in getting them out. A teacher and community representative from another inner-city school reported how recruiters verbally abused students who passed out antiwar literature. Students testified that no one told them that the ASVAB (Armed Services Aptitude Battery) was a military exam and a primary source for the Pentagon database. Another student told about how a military recruiter offered him a ride home but wouldn’t let him out of the car until he gave his contact information.
Later, the board president told me that board members didn’t know what was going on in the local schools until we informed them. The board formed a new District Advisory Military Recruitment Committee, which gave us direct access to district staff and information. We had quarterly meetings where we raised questions and requested clarification about processes and policies with school officials and military personnel. At times the process was slow and frustrating, especially when district officials dodged our requests, but we gained tangible results from this collaboration. The most significant of those results was a districtwide policy that spells out limits on military recruiter access to students. For the first time the nation’s second largest school district had written parameters for military recruitment.
Our goal in CAMS includes a mission beyond the immediate issue of militarism in the schools. We want to transform the school climate and promote peaceful alternatives, social justice, and hope for youth. We want students to have the opportunity to explore their dreams and passions and to know that they can choose viable careers and go to college without joining the military. We developed a booklet called “Great Jobs, Careers, Futures” and a separate higher education brochure, and know it is just the beginning. We also know that we have to create an inclusive, vibrant, and focused organization that encourages diversity and student leadership.
One example of a specific strategy we pursued was our Operation Opt Out Campaign that focused on the insufficient ways that the LAUSD was complying with the No Child Left Behind act and its opt-out clause. We presented our concerns regarding the notification process to the Board of Education: short timeline, confusing information, failure to communicate rights to students. And we developed our own plan of getting the word out through student groups, flyers to teacher union representatives, and at peace and justice community events. CAMS developed and distributed thousands of fact sheets that had the opt-out form on the back in English and Spanish.
This campaign triggered an outpouring of student organizing. Students set up tables and crafted large opt-out signs to get the information out to their peers. They passed out flyers and counter recruitment literature, and made multimedia presentations. At one school an administrator refused to publicize the opt-out information through a public announcement. When students learned about this resistance from teachers, many of them (including the uniformed football team) became angry and stormed the principal’s office.
When the opt-out returns were announced, we were ecstatic. We had reached our goal of 5,000 more students than the previous year — a total of 11,350 students or 18 percent of 63,000 juniors and seniors in LAUSD). Roosevelt High School nearly tripled its number of students opting out of recruitment from 200 to 600. In 2005, the opt-out numbers increased to 24 percent, more than 15,000 students.
But more important than the numbers were the experiences that came out of this campaign. One student, Michelle Villegas, initiated passing out counter-recruitment flyers with her student club (MEChA, Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan) this past year. The principal stopped her, saying that she needed administrator approval. Her mother joined her effort, searching on the Internet and found CAMS. Mrs. Villegas wrote to us and asked for help. I received her email, wrote a response, and copied it to the ACLU. After a meeting with the district lawyer, the administration changed its position and allowed students to distribute flyers wherever they wanted. But it didn’t stop there. This incident energized Michelle and her mother to join CAMS and take the leadership at their high school.
Last year, we realized that as more people became interested in helping us, we needed to provide clear and specific steps on what to do. Some community members and veterans who did not have children in schools really wanted to help, but didn’t know how to start. We envisioned the neighborhood schools as centers of activism where the broader community could participate. So we developed the CAMS Adopt-A-School Project and Tool Kit to provide a step-by-step process that describes how anyone can help to demilitarize schools and present alternatives. We began this project in September with 35 Los Angeles-area schools, and plan to increase to 50 schools in the fall of 2006.
Today when you visit Roosevelt High School in East Los Angeles, you will find a very different school climate than three years ago. Military recruiters claim “Roosevelt has kicked us out” and they are no longer interested in coming to campus. Instead, students from MEChA and other organizations wear handmade T-shirts with sayings like “Books not Bombs” and “Students not Soldiers,” and pass out counter-recruitment fliers and college informational brochures. They are all a testament to the organizing work of many that started with a few.
CAMS has grown beyond my wildest expectations. It has taught me about organizing and the power of working together. But the greatest reward comes in those quiet moments when a student will say, “I was going to join the military before, but what you’ve shown me has changed my mind. Everyone needs to know about this.”
Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (COMD)
Central Committee of Conscientious Objectors (CCCO)
American Friends Service Committee (AFSC)
(Fernando Suarez del Solar)
War Resisters League
Project Youth and Nonmilitary Options
GI Rights Hotline
I Will Not Kill (IWNK)
Arlington West film
Veterans For Peace
Iraq Veterans Against the War
Addicted to War
Gold Star Families for Peace
Soldiers Speak Out