NC activist can coax students away from military

RALEIGH, N.C. — A rural North Carolina school district with a proud military tradition is allowing a Quaker peace activist a chance to coax high school students away from careers in the armed forces, attorneys said Wednesday.

For years, Sally Ferrell had been asking permission to warn students about joining the military. The Wilkes County School Board had denied her access, even though military recruiters are typically allowed in school, and school leaders had called her activities unpatriotic.

Superintendent Stephen Laws said the district and the American Civil Liberties Union reached an agreement that bars recruiters from presenting political views or attacking other occupations. He disputed the suggestion that Ferrell had not been granted equal access, arguing she was banned from schools because her criticism of the armed forces violated district policy.

The ACLU had argued Ferrell and her group, North Carolina Peace Action, were denied free speech. Under the agreement, she'll have the same access to students as military recruiters.

Ferrell said she looks forward to providing job-related information. She has previously touted AmeriCorps and other alternatives to the military.

The agreement puts new restrictions on all types of promoters. Recruiters can no longer approach students directly, as they often do by setting up tables in cafeterias and common areas. Instead, they can only meet with students who sign up to hear about opportunities, Laws said.

"We're extremely pleased with the agreement, and we're excited about moving on," Laws said.

Recruiters have been relying more heavily on high schools to help fill the ranks of the all-volunteer military. Thousands of people like Ferrell have responded with counter-recruiting groups, saying the military often gives misleading information.

Activists have complained the military often targets high schools in poor and rural areas, where graduating students have limited options. Wilkes County, on the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains about 50 miles west of Winston-Salem, has been hurt by the exodus of manufacturing jobs. Its June unemployment rate was 13.2 percent.

The area has a proud military history going back to Col. Benjamin Cleveland, a Revolutionary War commander who helped defeat the British in the Battle of Kings Mountain.

Ferrell first approached the school district in 2005, but Laws denied access. Two years later, the group reached an agreement with the school board allowing Ferrell in the high schools, but Laws revoked that privilege shortly after.

"We allow recruiters into the schools to recruit for post-high school opportunities. But she wasn't offering that," he said last year.

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