WASHINGTON - It began as a class assignment for Alexia Welch and Sarah Ybarra: Make a five-minute video news story about advertising in public schools.
But the Lawrence, Kan., teenagers' project snowballed into a 25-minute documentary on how the federal No Child Left Behind law to improve education promotes military recruitment, infringes on students' privacy and encourages school officials to look the other way.
The movie's fans include a Democratic California congressman who's been trying to change the law for two years and award-winning liberal filmmaker Robert Greenwald, who viewed some early rushes and offered the pair his lawyer's services, just in case.
Their film, "No Child Left Unrecruited," premiered in April at an arts center in Lawrence, the home of the University of Kansas. A short trailer on YouTube has gotten 630 hits in the past month, and the film made its Washington debut Tuesday.
"We found out this wasn't a school assignment anymore," said 17-year-old Ybarra, who'll be a senior next fall at Lawrence High School. "This was going to go beyond the walls of the district."
So there they were Tuesday, the two teenage auteurs from Jeff Kuhr's broadcast media class, at a screening in the basement of the Capitol, hosted by their congressional patron, Rep. Michael Honda.
"You get an A plus," said Honda, who was a schoolteacher and principal before he came to Washington.
Eighteen-year-old Welch, who just graduated, said she and Ybarra just wanted to answer questions about the rules surrounding military-recruiting policies. They didn't anticipate the fuss.
"All this other stuff blew us away," she said. "I don't think we ever thought about a Washington screening."
The idea came to Welch last summer when a contract Army recruiter wrote and offered her $100 if she'd enlist. She wondered how he'd obtained her name, address and telephone number.
They discovered that a little-known provision of No Child Left Behind, which President Bush signed in 2002, requires schools to give the military personal information about their students. Otherwise, the schools' federal aid could be at risk.
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Welch and Ybarra found that their high school published all that information and more - age, gender, date of birth and parents' work phone numbers - in the high school directory, which anyone can buy for $2.
Students could opt out of the directory, they learned, but few knew that they could. And the consequences of that would be not seeing their names listed in the yearbook or school newspaper or on the honor rolls.
The film follows Welch and Ybarra's odyssey "down the rabbit hole" as they question school officials about the ease with which the military can breach student privacy, and the roadblocks that face parents who seek to keep the data out of reach.
Welch and Ybarra contacted Honda after an Internet search showed that he's been trying to amend No Child Left Behind so that military recruiters couldn't get access to the information without parental consent.
The law is up for renewal this year. Honda's bill has 57 co-sponsors.
Welch and Ybarra said their film wasn't about the military's right to recruit students - which Welch said she had no problem with - but more about "making sure no question is left unanswered," Ybarra said.
Welch said she'd probably enroll at the University of Kansas next fall and might study journalism. Ybarra has another year of high school but has become passionate about documentaries.
For now, everyone involved is just enjoying the ride.
"This has been an amazing opportunity for all of us," said Kuhr, who accompanied the pair to Washington. "I mean, we're in the basement of the Capitol. Pretty cool."
ON THE WEB
A movie trailer for the documentary can be seen at http://youtube.com/watch?v=f7xOKj3u-A
McClatchy Newspapers 2007