In October 2015, the school board of the Austin Independent School District approved a policy doubling down on restrictions to military recruiter access. Our Austin truth-in-recruiting group, Sustainable Options for Youth (SOY), had successfully worked with our district in coalition with a student group in 2005-2006 for some recruiter restrictions and equal access for nonmilitary alternatives. In subsequent years, three local recruiters were charged in a series of serious abuses that led SOY to pursue a stronger policy. In a strange twist, this might not have happened had not one of the implicated recruiters contacted us.
The e-mail message arrived out of the blue in May 2014 from a former Marine Corps recruiter who had been charged in the sexual assault of a local 16-year-old high school student three years prior. He wrote to ask us to remove the newspaper story about it from our blog site, claiming that the charges had been “proven to be false and dismissed.” He wrote that he was still in the Marines and that the story was making it hard for his family “to move forward.” We had seen no follow-up in the press after the disturbing report had been published in November 2011, but we’d assumed that he’d been convicted of the crime. I shared the Marine’s message with our school district’s attorney to ask if he knew the status of the case. He replied that he didn’t know and suggested that I look up the records at the county courthouse.
The Marine wasn’t the only recruiter charged that year in the sexual assault of a student he had met at an Austin high school. In April 2011, an Army recruiter had been arrested after complaints from several prospective recruits led to the revelation that a local 17-year-old high school student had reported that the recruiter had sexually assaulted her in her home in September 2009. She had told his commander, but the commander had not notified the police, so the recruiter had been allowed to continue recruiting in Austin schools for another year and a half until his arrest. A full investigation was promised, but, again, we had seen no follow-up in the press. After receiving the Marine’s e-mail message, I wondered about this Army assault case. Had it been prosecuted?
I went to the county courthouse and looked up the court documents related to both recruiter cases. Included were the sworn affidavits by the students recounting the details of the assaults, and I was appalled. Both cases appeared to be clear felony crimes against minors, yet the charges had been quietly dismissed after numerous postponements. In the Marine’s case, the cause of dismissal was given as “pending further investigation.” I called the district attorney who had signed the dismissal form to ask whether there had been further investigation, and she said there was none that she knew of. In the Army recruiter’s case, the cause of dismissal was given as “the complaining witness stopped cooperating with the prosecution of the case.” The victim may not have wished to relive the trauma by having to recount it again in a court setting. But what about the other victims mentioned in the original news account? There was no reference to them in the court documents. I later found a Linked-In page for the former recruiter that indicated he had been discharged from the Army but was still living and working in the Austin area.
While researching these cases, I contacted Rick Jahnkow at Project YANO, who referred me to a compilation of news reports about sexual assaults by military recruiters. Reading through those, I discovered that yet a third assault had happened in Austin in April 2008 but had not been reported in our local press. The story was from the San Diego Union-Tribune, reporting on the court-martial of a former Austin Marine recruiter who had sexually assaulted his 17-year-old step-niece following a recruiting event. Unlike the two other recruiters’ cases, this Marine had admitted his crime, was dishonorably discharged and was given a two-year prison sentence on a reduced charge. According to the article, he had been “a recruiting instructor in Austin, Texas, responsible for training Marine recruiters over a vast swath of the state.”
Learning all this was deeply troubling. Had anyone within the school district looked up these court documents? How had the assaults affected the student survivors? In the case of the step-niece, the news article gave a partial answer: she had made a suicide attempt the day after the assault.
If members of any other outside group had been charged with these crimes, surely that group would have been barred from schools altogether. Was the federal law guaranteeing recruiters access in public schools the only thing keeping the door open for them, or was the military getting a pass simply because of a general reluctance to be critical of it? Our school district’s attorney, who had always been open to our concerns, wrote me when I’d contacted him in 2011 after the assaults were reported in our local paper to say that because sex crimes against students were also unfortunately sometimes committed by school staff, he didn’t feel it was a problem inherent in the military. He saw it as a situation of “a few bad apples,” and he didn’t see a need for restricting recruiter access further at that time. We didn’t press it then, believing that the recruiters involved would be convicted and would take responsibility for their crimes. But, learning that didn’t happen in two of the three cases was very upsetting.
Our group discussed what to do with these findings. We met with the director of our local women’s shelter to gain further information on sexual violence. We researched other school districts’ policies through Project YANO. We chose elements of those policies that we felt might have prevented the local recruiter abuses. Then we drafted a letter to the school district’s attorney describing the assault reports, proposing added restrictions in recruiter/student contact, and asking for a meeting.
We received a prompt reply to our letter, but our meeting wasn’t scheduled until six months later. Four of us from SOY sat down with the district’s attorney and assistant superintendent. We gave them copies of the court documents and reiterated our proposal of four added restrictions to military recruiter access: a prohibition on recruiters obtaining contact information directly from students, a rule against recruiters transporting or meeting any student off campus without written permission from a parent or guardian, a stop to any recruiting at athletic events, and a new district-wide requirement that only “Option 8” be used when the ASVAB test is administered.
Over the next six months the assistant superintendent vetted our proposal among the district’s principals and then with the Board Policy Committee. Two of us from SOY attended the Policy Committee meeting and were surprised to see that the impetus for our proposal, the sexual assault charges, had not been shared with the committee members. They were told that the motivation for the policy change had come from “aggressive recruiting” during a sporting event. Because of this, I made more copies of the court documents and news stories related to the sexual assault cases and gave them to each school board member. At the school board meeting, three of us from SOY spoke on behalf of the policy during the Citizens Communications portion of the meeting. Then, quietly, all the points we had proposed were approved without objection as part of the consent agenda.
Throughout the process it was clear to me that, despite the increase in media attention to the entrenched culture of sexism and sexual violence within the military, there is an equally entrenched public resistance to admitting the problem as a systemic one. In our schools the military is generally venerated, and it’s terrible to acknowledge that someone in uniform betrayed the trust of a student in such a damaging way. It’s terrible to imagine that a soldier could be conditioned by military training to dehumanize and objectify a young person and commit a crime against her.
Until the whole process of turning human beings into soldiers is recognized as being at the root of the problem of high rates of sexual violence within the military, the problem will continue to spill into civilian institutions: our families, homes and schools. Will adding restrictions to recruiters in the schools make a difference? I don’t know. I hope it will be one step further toward taking military recruitment out of our schools altogether and doubling down on nonviolent alternatives to militarism.
Susan Van Haitsma is the co-coordinator of Sustainable Options for Youth in Austin, Texas, http://peaceoptions.blogspot.com/.
This article is from Draft NOtices, the newsletter of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (http://www.comdsd.org/).