Called to attention

High schoolers expose military's enlistment tactics in their film 'No Child Left Unrecruited'

Lawrence High School senior Alexia Welch, left, and junior Sarah Ybarra, right, pictured with their film teacher Jeffrey Kuhr, debuted their documentary, No

Jeffrey Kuhr, left, and Alexia Welch approached Rep. Dennis Moore recently at the USD 497 Administrative Offices, inviting him to the screening of No

It started as a class assignment.

Lawrence High School students in a broadcast media class were asked to make a short clip of an advertisement.

Simple enough.

“Over the summer I had gotten a letter from an Army recruiter that offered me money to enlist with him. And we see recruiters at lunch all the time, so we thought they’re like an advertisement in our school,” says LHS senior Alexia Welch.

“It was supposed to be a five-minute thing, but the more we found out about it, the more we realized it had to be a movie.”

The “it” part of the equation that Welch and her classmate, junior Sarah Ybarra, discovered involved a provision in the No Child Left Behind Act. Buried in the 670-page domestic initiative is a clause that requires schools to make available every student’s name and contact information to the military – or risk forfeiting federal aid.

Welch and Ybarra’s investigation into what it takes to opt out of that listing has resulted in a half-hour documentary called “No Child Left Unrecruited.” The movie premieres at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Lawrence Arts Center, 940 N.H.

“Kids didn’t know why Army recruiters were calling them. And none of the kids knew they could opt out,” Ybarra says.

Most didn’t know either that their school also provided age, gender and parents’ work phone numbers to the military – information that also was included in a school directory that could be bought for $2 dollars.

Who else was purchasing this specific information? Credit card companies? Pedophiles?

But opting out of that directory carried its own consequences, the students learned, such as being excluded from the yearbook and honor roll listings.

“Their interest never waned,” says LHS film and media arts teacher Jeffrey Kuhr of his two students. “It was like they were going down the rabbit hole as they found more and more information. It got to the point where we sat down and I said, ‘You’re not going to finish (the film) this semester.'”

Face to face

The 18-year-old Welch and 17-year-old Ybarra spent months doing what amounted to old-fashioned investigative journalism.

They first sought interviews from the recruiters who roamed the halls of their school.

“They didn’t want to be on camera,” Welch explains. “But then we found out since they’re at our school, and it’s a public thing, we were allowed to use that (footage).”

Next came interviews with other students, parents, teachers, LHS Principal Steve Nilhas, school district Superintendent Randy Weseman, and even U.S. Rep. Dennis Moore (D.-Kan.), who had supported No Child Left Behind.

“Some people in the district didn’t want us to meddle into things because they didn’t want it to affect their jobs,” Ybarra recalls. “There were a couple people we dealt with who were condescending or rude with us. On the other hand, we got a lot of support from our principal and staff at our school.”

One of the most unusual sources stemmed from that somewhat mysterious mail Welch received that provided the catalyst for much of her privacy concerns.

Earlier in 2006, she had opened a letter sent to her home by a Richard Gantz, who promised to give her $100 dollars to enlist through him in the Army.

The filmmakers contacted Gantz, who told them he was a “contractor” for the Army, but wouldn’t reveal if he held a rank in the military or was simply a third-party broker of sorts.

Recent phone calls to Gantz’s toll-free number were answered by this message: “You have reached a United States Army recruiter’s cell phone. Please call (785) 843-0465 to speak to a recruiter.”

The number given was that of the U.S. Army Recruiting office at 2233 La. When the Journal-World called and asked to speak to Gantz, a staffer repeatedly said, “He no longer works here.”

National scope

Despite ruffling a few feathers at the local level, Welch and Ybarra made some powerful national allies as well.

Maverick filmmaker Robert Greenwald (“Outfoxed,” “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price”) supplied the pair with a lawyer who works with fair-use projects.

Most impressively, Rep. Mike Honda (D.-Calif.), became aware of the work accomplished by the filmmakers. Honda is proposing a new amendment to No Child Left Behind when it comes up for renewal this year that would require an opt-in policy instead of an opt-out.

“It would completely change everything with one word,” Kuhr says.

(The documentary uncovered that of the 2,000 or so kids enrolled at LHS, only 13 had taken advantage of the opt-out choice.)

“What shocked me the most was the lack of clarity at the district level. We were getting different answers from different administrators about what the policy was,” Kuhr says.

“If WE don’t know, how are parents supposed to make good decisions? How are students supposed to make good decisions?

True education

Ybarra says the experience of making “No Child Left Unrecruited” has made an indelible impact on her.

“I’m kind of amazed by it. I never thought it would be as big as it’s become,” says Ybarra, who plans on studying film when she goes to college.

Welch had a somewhat different reaction to the project.

“I want to pursue journalism or something along those lines,” she says. “I don’t know if I could do documentaries. It’s one of those things that’s just never ending. There’s always something you can add or something you could fix.”

Tuesday’s screening is being sponsored in part by the Lawrence chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Lawrence Coalition for Peace and Justice.

“Already people who haven’t seen this film have questioned it as being liberal propaganda,” Kuhr says.

“There are probably people who see this as a waste of school time, whereas I see this as the ultimate definition of education. These kids were passionate about something, followed it through, learned from it and are now changed because of it. To me school doesn’t get any better than that.”