January 15

Bill on military recruiters in Maine schools easily endorsed by committee

It would allow them to wear uniforms and sets an expectation of ‘equal access’ to students, something that critics say is not an issue.

By Noel K. Gallagher ngallagher@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

After a similar bill imploded amid bitter debate last session, a bipartisan bill allowing military recruiters to wear their uniforms while visiting public schools sailed through the Legislature’s Education Committee on Wednesday.

click image to enlarge

Army recruiters Sgt. Stephen Wallace, left, and Sgt. 1st Class Brandon Didier talk with Portland Arts and Technology High School students during a 2012 job fair. A proposal that would ensure that recruiters are allowed to wear uniforms while visiting schools was approved by a state legislative committee Wednesday.

2012 Press Herald File Photo/John Ewing

“I expected more discussion here today,” bill sponsor Rep. Mick Devin, D-Newcastle, said after the brief public hearing and quick unanimous vote by the committee to endorse the bill, L.D. 1579. “I did a lot of work ahead of time.”

The bill introduced in the last legislative session said uniformed military recruiters must have the same access as other recruiters. Devin’s bill makes no comparisons to other recruiters and just says military and all other public service recruiters can wear their uniforms at the schools.

During the contentious debate in the last session, officials at several schools denied that recruiters had been restricted in their access to students on campus.

Devin, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate, told the committee his bill is intended to ensure “equal access” to recruiters, although opponents of the bill last year noted that public schools are already prohibited from barring military recruiters under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The federal law makes no mention of uniforms.

Devin said he has never had problems on campuses with principals or superintendents, but that some lower-level school employees, such as guidance counselors, have made access to students “difficult if not impossible.”

His bill, he said, “sets out an expectation that school districts will afford all unformed civil servants the opportunity to meet with students to discuss career tracks.”

No one spoke in opposition to the bill, and it passed unanimously. Only Devin and another legislator spoke in favor, and no uniformed recruiters were present in the committee room.

Bill Libby, former Adjutant General of the Maine National Guard, submitted written testimony in favor of the bill, as did Acting Education Commissioner Jim Rier.

Both said that although there is no written policy barring recruiters, they believed access was controlled and in some cases restricted.

“Is this legislation fixing a problem that does not exist? On paper, yes, in practice, no,” Libby wrote. “At worst, L.D. 1579 is a harmless measure, at best, it establishes the Legislature’s intent that public safety and military personnel may wear their uniforms when visiting schools in their official capacity.”

Last year, the similar bill led to emotional floor speeches and accusations that critics were anti-patriotic or anti-military, provoking many Democratic supporters to switch their vote to ultimately defeat the bill. Gov. Paul LePage called the defeat a disgrace and sent angry, handwritten notes to Democratic lawmakers who voted against the bill.

Dick Durost, executive director of the Maine Principals’ Association, alluded to that debate Wednesday. “We believe this bill is unnecessary, but we certainly do not oppose it,” Durost said. “We believe that last year, some schools were unfairly accused of some things.”

Durost was referring to an email that identified seven schools where Maine Army National Guard recruiters said they only were allowed “minimal access.” Officials at all those schools denied that.

A spokesman for the Guard said at the time that they were unaware of any Maine school that barred recruiters in uniform.

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

ngallagher@pressherald.com

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