JROTC Is Preying on Poor Students

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The G. Holmes Braddock Senior High School Naval JROTC Unit cadets at the Miami Beach, Florida Veterans Day Parade, November 11, 2022.

The Pentagon’s signature program for instilling military values in American schools, the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC), has a long history dating to 1916. But it hasn’t endured such bad press since the 1970s. In several damning articles, the New York Times revealed the structure of what’s wrong with high school military training: instructors who use their positions to prey on teenage girls, in-school shooting ranges built with grants from the National Rifle Association, and mandatory enrollment in some of the nation’s largest school districts — all abetted by school officials who fail to adequately monitor a program of such dubious educational value that many instructors lack a college degree.

These revelations have vindicated those in the “counter-recruitment” movement who for years warned of a largely unsupervised program taught by retired military officers. It also raises serious questions about why military training programs have any place in US public high schools.

The Pentagon spends around $400 million annually to provide training in military drill and “leadership” through the JROTC in more than 3,500 high schools, to approximately five hundred thousand students. Despite this presence, the program seems to operate on the fringes, with school officials exercising scant oversight even as instructors take their young “cadets” on extended travel to military bases and interschool competitions. Such conditions foster an environment rife with potential abuse.

The Times identified at least thirty-three JROTC instructors who had been criminally charged with sexual misconduct with their students, and found evidence that numerous other instructors were accused but never charged. According to the education outlet Chalkbeat, Chicago’s head of school military instruction quietly resigned last summer, three years after failing to inform officials of suspected sexual abuse by a JROTC instructor who was later arrested.

A crucial part of JROTC’s carefully crafted image is its voluntary nature: students are said to willingly sign up simply because they like what the program offers. Thus, the news that thousands of students were forced to take military courses is especially troubling. Chicago Public Schools (CPS) boast of having the country’s largest JROTC program, with more than 7,800 teenage “cadets” in thirty-seven high schools and six school military academies. But according to a 2022 CPS inspector general’s report, Chicago’s success with military education is based on compulsion and coercion.

Indeed, the inspector general found that over the past two years, nearly all ninth graders at ten CPS high schools were automatically enrolled in JROTC, which requires them to dress in military uniforms weekly and practice marching in drills. Procedures for opting out of the program were not clearly communicated with students or their parents and in some cases were nonexistent.

Chicago is only the tip of the iceberg. As the Times revealed in December, “dozens of schools have made the program mandatory or steered more than 75 percent of students in a single grade into the classes, including schools in Detroit, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Oklahoma City, and Mobile, [Alabama].” Most of those schools had a large proportion of non-white students from lower-income households.

These investigations prompted one of the first congressional inquiries into JROTC in recent years. In Chicago, CPS announced it will end automatic enrollment in the program and now require schools to issue parental consent forms for JROTC participants. These are welcome changes. But fundamental questions about the program remain: What is its real purpose? How are JROTC instructors screened for their influential positions? Why is the United States virtually alone in the Western world in mixing military instruction with public education?

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Source: https://jacobin.com