STARBASE: Selling the Military to Your Child

By Erin Niemela

I am a parent of a an elementary school student in Portland, Ore., and early this week I discovered our school is participating in the STARBASE program. STARBASE is a Department of Defense initiative offering science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) training to at-risk public school students.

According to the 2012 STARBASE Annual Report, there are 76 STARBASE locations in 40 states, the District of Columbia, and “4 outreach programs to Native Americans,” serving 68,270 students in 2012 alone.  21 Portland area schools are participating this year.

While some parents applaud STARBASE for bringing STEM subjects to students in an engaging, exciting way, others – myself included – are concerned about the intentions of the program.

The STARBASE concept was devised in 1989 by Barbara Koscak, a Michigan educator, who later found herself a comfortable full-time position with the Department of Defense. In a July 15, 2010 Portland Mercury article, Stefan Kamph interviews Koscak, during which she claims the Department of Defense is “giving back to the community [and] isn’t just about bombs and bullets.”

DoD’s Vested Interest

In contrast to Koscak’s claim that the DoD is giving students this opportunity out of the “kindness of its heart,” in the 2012 STARBASE Annual Report, Major General Donald P. Dunbar states, “The Department of Defense has vested interest in the development of this nation’s future innovators…” (Emphasis mine).  Even the STARBASE vision statement gives a clear-cut indicator of the purpose of the program:

“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.”

If the vision statement isn’t enough evidence of STARBASE’s intentions, then the content of student participant evaluations – those surveys used to determine if the program is “effective” – add another layer of impropriety. Students are evaluated prior to and after their participation in the program to determine shifts in attitude toward the military, military personnel, facilities and careers. Students participating in STARBASE attend classes on military bases and instruction on future military careers is a mandatory portion of the program. If students leave STARBASE with more positive attitudes about the military, the program is considered a success.

According to the 2012 Annual Report, “Students entering the program with low military attitudes had lower knowledge scores … than those entering the program with high military attitudes.” Such a statement implies that a child that disapproves of war, war-making and military functions will not get as good an education as a student with the “right” attitude, thereby placing pressure on parents to instill in children a more positive attitude toward the military.

While on base, students are exposed to various light and heavy weaponry. As with many schools across the nation, this fact alone runs counter to Portland Public School weapons policy: “Weapons, facsimiles, and weapons-related activities are prohibited in the schools, on school grounds, at school activities, and school sponsored activities. No person shall have on School District property any weapon, explosive or incendiary device.” While we strive to create nonviolent, safe learning experiences for our children, our school system is simultaneously presenting them with the ultimate violent experience in a positive, sugarcoated way.

No Alternatives

Understanding that STARBASE is a military recruitment program for children isn’t rocket science, pardon the pun. None of this information is hidden or concealed, but it certainly isn’t broadcast. Many parents I’ve spoken with have little to no information about the program, other than that their child will have to participate. While I haven’t heard about alternative education opportunities for families that opt-out, the alternative at my son’s school appears to be having the child sit in a room and study all day.  Four times per year, students with a reasonable apprehension to participating in a DoD military recruiting program are denied their right to comprehensive education. This is shameful.

At the very least, schools must provide an alternative education opportunity for those of us who refuse to send our children to an institution soaked in violence where a stated goal is instilling positive attitudes toward military careers.

I urge all public school parents and concerned community members to call, email or write school administrators and board members and demand their school withdraw from the STARBASE program and/or provide an alternative education opportunity for students. Those of us who refuse to knowingly send our children to an institution that creates and is fueled by violence deserve and have the right to the same educational opportunities as other students. We have the right to resist military recruitment of our elementary school children, we have the duty to resist STARBASE.Φ

Erin Niemela is a Portland resident and parent, Master’s Candidate of the Conflict Resolution Program at Portland State University, and syndicated journalist of PeaceVoice, a program of the Oregon Peace Institute.

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