K-5 Students Deserve a Quality STEM Education, Not Human Rights Violations

As the American public school year begins, parents and guardians across the country are getting to know new teachers, bus routes, routines and worrying increasingly about violence and bullying as we send our children into the semi-unknown. It’s a busy, nervous time of year. Parents of school-aged children in Syria and Iraq have other worries. An August 2014 United Nations Human Rights Council report states that both state and non-state armed groups in the region have been recruiting children for combat and non-combat support roles in violent conflict – both war crimes and violations of international human rights. Some of these armed groups use schools as recruitment, training and living quarters. The Islamic State (ISIS) has “established training camps to recruit children into armed roles under the guise of education,” according to the August 2014 UNHRC report. For their participation, ISIS offers children education, employment and the glory of military service.

Many of the issues facing American, Syrian and Iraqi parents are incomparable. As parents ourselves, we cannot imagine the horror of wanting an education for our children only to watch them be actively recruited or forced into armed combat at age 11. But, we also recognize that American children as young as age five are also actively recruited by an armed group – the US Military – throughout their educational career.

US military recruiters have access to American children beginning in kindergarten and extending through senior year under the guises of education and employment. As a provision of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, in order to receive federal funding, our public schools must provide the DoD with our children’s personal information unless parents or students “opt-out” – every single year. Is your child struggling with math, chemistry or other subjects? Is your child late or absent often? Is your child from a single parent home or on reduced lunches? The DoD wants to know if your child fits any of these markers as a target for recruitment. The New York Civil Liberties Union website offers tools for opting out, and both parents and children – even under 17-years-old – can sign the forms.

Aside from using personal information to target potential recruits, the DoD has developed a more under-the-radar recruitment strategy over the past 21 years. Rather than just sending recruiters to schools, schools are sending our kids, K-5, to military bases to learn science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects. This is the DoD STARBASE program, designed in 1989 by Barbara Koscak, a Michigan educator-turned DoD employee. DoD STARBASE states as its vision: “To raise the interest and improve the knowledge and skills of at-risk youth in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, which will provide for a highly educated and skilled American workforce that can meet the advanced technological requirements of the Department of Defense.”

The US has more than 1000 bases spread across the globe. In the 1980’s it was recognized that our military capacity depended on our dominance of technology. What once was “boots on the ground” is now “fingers on the joystick” as soldiers use space technology, robotics and unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) to target and kill from a distance. The DoD needs recruits that understand math and science. DoD-monitored STEM education for children today ensures scientifically literate soldiers tomorrow.

As a caveat of participation in DoD STARBASE, children are exposed to military career instruction as one-sixth of the curriculum. Post-program evaluations measure students’ attitudes toward the military, military personnel, facilities and careers. If students leave DoD STARBASE with more positive attitudes about working in the military, the program is considered a success. Students indicate their degree of agreement with the following statements, among others: “I am enjoying coming to a military base,” “Military bases are exciting,” “I am good at following directions” and “The military is a good place to work.”

Our children deserve a chance to learn and utilize STEM knowledge without being “targeted” by the DoD, as they put it in their annual report. Rather than spending $25 million for STEM classes on military bases per year, let’s use that money to build better science labs in the schools. Rather than recruiting future soldiers, let’s recruit and pay better teachers. We deserve quality STEM education in quality schools and the privacy of our children’s personal information.

Find out if DoD STARBASE is targeting children in your area using the STARBASE Locater on the program’s website. Email your concerns or testify in person to your local public school board. Inform other parents about the risks and goals of the program. Demand that your child’s school provide alternative educational opportunities to the DoD STARBASE program and support their right to a quality STEM education where it’s needed most – in school.

Children around the world deserve a quality education without the fear of being abducted, recruited for and coerced into armed combat. American children aren’t at risk of coercive recruitment tactics like many other youth around the world, but our kids are subject to US military recruitment nonetheless. We must take a stand against military recruitment of all youth across the globe – including our own. Even if it’s dressed up as an educational opportunity, let’s call it what it really is: a war crime and human rights violation.