PORTLAND, Maine – School officials say the governor was wrong in claiming that military recruiters aren't allowed to wear uniforms when they visit Portland schools.
"Contrary to a claim by Maine Gov. Paul LePage, Portland's four public high schools all allow military recruiters in uniform to speak with students about military careers," said Chief Academic Officer David Galin in a news release Monday.
In his most recent weekend radio address, LePage singled out Portland and Yarmouth high schools, saying they barred uniformed recruiters from campus. Both school districts have now denied that.
Yarmouth High Principal Ted Hall said Friday that recruiters wear uniforms during visits "all the time."
So far, three schools have been singled out by the LePage administration as barring recruiters in uniform. All three have denied it.
In an email to a state legislator on June 6, Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen said a recruiter named Sanford High as "one of the schools" where he was asked to wear civilian clothes. But the superintendent said Sanford has no such policy.
LePage's communications director, Peter Steele, said in an email Monday: "In the past Maine schools have limited access for military recruiters, and some recruiters were told they could not wear uniforms on school property. School officials are free to deny that shameful behavior. But we stand by the information provided to the LePage administration by professional military personnel."
Steele said, "If school officials now claim that they provide military recruiters with the same access that is offered to other college and career recruiters, then we are pleased that Maine students will get the opportunity to explore career options in our nation's military services."
LePage also said in his radio address that seven schools in southern Maine "allow only minimal access of recruiters." Several of those schools have denied that.
The debate over military recruiters has been political since the Legislature rejected L.D. 1503, which would have ensured that "uniformed" military recruiters have the same access to schools that college recruiters have.
Democrats who voted against the bill said it wasn't warranted because there is scant evidence that recruiters lack access or are prevented from wearing uniforms. Several said Republicans used the bill to cast Democrats as anti-military. Republicans, including LePage, have since claimed that Democrats disrespected veterans.
LePage's statements apparently are based on his interpretation of an email to Bowen on May 22 from Sgt. Maj. Richard Hannibal of the Maine Army National Guard.
The email does not say clearly which schools allegedly prohibit uniformed recruiters. Hannibal would not comment Monday. He referred questions to Peter Rogers, spokesman for Maine's Army National Guard and a former communications director for LePage.
Rogers said Hannibal has confirmed everything in his email.
"We're feeling like people are looking at us like we're making this stuff up, and we're not," Rogers said, noting that Hannibal got the information directly from "five or six" recruiters. "We also have the confidence that the information our recruiters have given us is accurate."
When asked which schools barred uniformed recruiters, Rogers said: "There are no schools that we know of that have barred recruiters in uniform."
Rogers said his understanding is that the issue arose from a specific incident in which a recruiter was asked not to wear a uniform while giving a timed multi-aptitude test to potential recruits at a particular school.
Rogers said he did not know where that happened, or when, and no one had asked Hannibal to provide those details. He said Hannibal got the report from one of the military recruiters who report to him.
Rogers said the Army National Guard would not provide additional information or allow interviews with Hannibal or individual recruiters, because they "don't want to get in a back-and-forth" with the schools.
Hannibal told the Portland Press Herald in June that he could not remember details of the email.
Rogers and others have said they are reluctant to identify schools or provide specifics because recruiters don't want to jeopardize their relationships with school officials.
LePage has raised the issue repeatedly in the last week, calling the defeat of L.D. 1503 "one of the most appalling moves of the session" and suggesting it was a political act aimed at his administration.
Last week, LePage mailed handwritten notes to the homes of all of the Democrats who opposed the bill, including Rep. Charles Priest, D-Brunswick, who was awarded the Bronze Star Medal during the Vietnam War.
LePage has said he plans to reintroduce the bill when the Legislature reconvenes in January.
Public schools are prohibited from barring military recruiters because of a provision in the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Schools risk losing federal funding for refusing to release students' contact information to military recruiters or prohibiting recruiters from visiting.
Rogers said Monday that Hannibal, the National Guard officer, wrote his email in response to a request from Bowen.
Bowen said someone who visited the military processing station on Congress Street in Portland heard anecdotes about recruiters having access problems at high schools, and he wanted to know if that was true, Rogers said.
"The sergeant major talked to some of his folks, five or so ... (and) there have been instances over the year where there have been restrictions of access," Rogers said.
Hannibal said in his email to Bowen that the seven high schools in southern Maine that allowed "minimal access" were Oak Hill in Wales, Noble in North Berwick, Wells, York, Kennebunk, Gorham and Yarmouth.
He said recruiters usually visit a school twice a year.
Hannibal wrote that Yarmouth and Portland high schools allow parents to remove their students' names from a master list of junior and senior students before the list is distributed to recruiters.
He also wrote that "individual high schools" won't let recruiters wear uniforms — but he didn't name any schools.
Jonathan Poole, a Yarmouth High graduate who recently got his commission from the Naval Academy, said he has been welcomed at Yarmouth and other Maine schools during visits for potential recruits. Yarmouth High was particularly supportive, he said.
Rogers said recruiters have been told that they need to immediately report any access problems to commanding officers and to the school.