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Prop or propaganda?

Guard recruitment effort irks parents

By Shay Totten | Vermont Guardian

Posted December 15, 2006

The Vermont National Guard has a new recruitment tool: It’s big, it’s red, and it’s bouncy. And, it may be coming to a school gym near you.

It’s called the “Patriot Challenge,” and it’s been on duty since May, mostly traveling to county fairs and other regional public events.

However, during a recent two-day stint at Burlington High School (BHS), parents complained that its presence in the school skirted the boundaries of district policies, including one that puts strict guidelines on what kind of gifts can be offered, another that puts restrictions on who leads curriculum, and another that limits the amount of recruitment allowed by branches of the military on the school campus.

For two days — Dec. 6 and 7 — the Vermont National Guard set up a giant, inflatable obstacle course in the school gymnasium and led exercise regimens with willing students. Those students who did not wish to participate either sat on the sidelines and watched, waited in another room, or were provided some other phys ed options.

School and Guard officials, including Burlington High School Principal Amy Mellencamp, deny the Guard’s presence was part of an overt recruitment effort, but Guard officials agree that the main purpose of the “prop” is to help recruitment efforts.

The Vermont Army National Guard was contacted by phys ed teachers at the high school because its “Patriots Challenge” inflatable obstacle course had been in at least four other high schools in Vermont, most recently at Mississquoi Valley Union High School in Franklin County.

“[T]he soldiers from the [Guard] working the event never received any names. The soldiers did exactly what was requested by the BHS and did not discuss recruiting or set up any table with the students,” wrote Maj. Thomas Palerno, commander of the Guard’s recruiting and retention division, in an e-mail to Mellencamp that was provided to the Guardian.

However, some parents believe the Guard directly benefits from the presence of the obstacle course in the school, since its logo and toll-free number are prominently displayed.

Palerno said the Guard sees the obstacle course as something other than a recruiting tool.

“The [Guard] is a community based organization and believes in giving something back to the community, and the ‘Patriots Challenge’ Inflatable Obstacle Course in my opinion supports health and well being,” wrote Palerno in his e-mail. “[T]he [Guard] did not turn gym class into a recruiting mission.”

At a Dec. 12 meeting of the Burlington School Board, several members said they thought equating the Guard’s obstacle course to recruitment was not appropriate.

“The Vermont Air National Guard sponsors a good number of events each year in this community, including an aerospace camp each year,” said Jurij Homziak, himself a veteran. “A PE course is no different than launching rockets and to say that something that is enriching is somehow a military activity with some sort of overt recruitment action is totally out of line.”

Others, too, said the board should be careful not to be too critical of the Guard, which has both members and supporters in the community.

Other board members disagreed.

“I hate to see or think that we are creating a high school that promotes a curriculum created and staffed by recruiters,” said Wally Elliot. “And to think that by having it in our gym will not have any influence on kids is naïve. This is crossing a line in my opinion that I don’t like.”

Marrissa Caldwell, another school board member, is concerned that the use of the recruitment prop sets a poor precedent for the district in allowing outside groups to take control of parts of the curriculum. She also believes that the school should be careful about allowing outside groups unfettered access to students under the guise of providing a service.

“It’s already too late and I’m more interested in what more can really be done that might keep it from happening again,” said Caldwell, who observed the obstacle course. “To me, we just shouldn’t allow the armed services unfettered access to our students. They are allowed to do a particular amount of tabling and recruitment, but we should limit them as much as possible rather than just allow them into our schools as much as they want to be.’

Caldwell is planning to take the issue up with the board’s curriculum committee, of which she is a member.

“I think we need to look at where we draw the line,” said Caldwell. “Do we allow people to donate, across the board, any free curricular piece because we’re in such dire straits due to unfunded state and federal mandates? Should we be taking anything like that from either the military or a corporation? I think we need to have that discussion at the board level.”

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