Jenice Armstrong: Granny shares 'OPT OUT!' message

Posted: September 06, 2011

PAULA PAUL is going back to school, but when the retired teacher shows up, she expects to be turned away by school security officers.

Paul and other members of the Granny Peace Brigade Philadelphia are used to such treatment, but they aren't deterred. Their goal is simple: to make sure high-school students know they can request that their contact information not be released to military recruiters.

"We stand outside and give [students] something like this," Paul said, showing me a piece of paper that screamed, "OPT OUT!"

The flier read: "Did you know that this fall your high school will give your name, address and phone numbers to military recruiters unless you sign the student opt-out form . . . "

"We say, 'Did your adviser give you this?' 'Are you a junior or senior?' Of course, we get kicked off the grounds all the time," Paul said matter-of-factly.

Members of the Granny Peace Brigade Philadelphia are notorious hell-raisers. In 2006, 11 of them were arrested after going to a local military-recruitment center and refusing to leave. They were charged with trespassing, charges that were eventually dropped.

"We do this because we feel we owe it to our children, that they at minimum are influenced enough to make a sound decision when considering military enlistment," Paul said recently, over tea in her Germantown home.

"Recruiters are salespeople, and I don't mean that in a negative way. That's their job, to sell the military. But we feel as grandparents and educators that our job is for our kids to understand what they're doing could be life-threatening."

Under the No Child Left Behind Act, high schools nationwide are required to provide recruiters with the names, addresses and phone numbers of students unless the students sign a form that allows them to opt out. The grannies have made it their business to ensure that students know that.

"For some kids, [recruitment] feels like pressure. Some families find it annoying," Paul said. "Our goal is for all families to be aware of the choice and the implications. We're not there yet."

But despite the reasonableness of their arguments, don't think for a second that these sweet old ladies don't have a sweeping agenda. And it's an agenda radically at odds with U.S. activities in the Middle East.

"I'm a big proponent of not using violence to create security," said Paul, who's 70 and a grandmother of four. "I don't see it as a way for the modern world to go. Violence begets violence . . . [and] current military needs have drained our community of so many resources."

The grannies also oppose having junior-officer-training programs and uncontrolled access of military recruiters in schools.

"I think [military recruiters] should be at career day. They should be at recruiting stations," Paul said. "I don't see them as being in the cafeteria on a weekly basis or on a daily basis."

The grannies recently made a presentation on this issue before the School Reform Commission and have put together folders of information to distribute to any would-be recruits. One brochure, "How to Talk to a Recruiter" by a group called the Penn Army of None, warns, "Remember, it's not just a job - it's your life. . . . If you change your mind after you enlist, it is very difficult to get out." Another, by the American Friends Service Committee asks, "Do You Know Enough to Enlist?"

Five years ago, Paul, who retired from the Philadelphia School District in 2005, joined the Granny Peace Brigade, which meets every other week at the Friends Center, 15th and Race streets. She heads up the Opt-Out Committee, which, among other things, wants schools to simplify the language on the opt-out letter. Committee members also make a point of contacting every local high school to ensure that administrators pass the letter out to juniors and seniors.

"I was against the war in Iraq," Paul told me when I asked her what her motivation was for getting involved. "I wanted to find a way to express that."

"[The grannies] are very smart. They're nondogmatic. They're funny. They read a lot."

Impressive, especially considering Paul could easily spend her golden years bird-watching or gardening in the Mastery Pickett Community Garden. Paul also has two grandchildren living in Boston whom she could spend more time visiting.

"When you choose to act publicly, it's not what most people do. It's hard to find a community that thinks similarly to you.

"A lot of people might think a certain way, but they don't act that way. The grannies are activists, and to me, it's important to find a way to act."

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