PJ Media

JROTC on Life Support in San Francisco

Arch-liberal San Francisco will vote next month on whether to retain Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps classes. JROTC may just win.

In 2006, the school board voted to end the 90-year-old program, which enrolled 1,600 students at seven high schools. Trustee Mark Sanchez argued that JROTC recruits students to join the military, where gays face the “don’t ask, don’t tell policy.” Unable to come up with an alternative leadership program, the board extended the death date to June, 2009. But they drove two-thirds of cadets out of JROTC by voting this summer to deny PE credit and transfer ninth graders to other classes. The abrupt move cost the district $1 million to hire new teachers, while still paying half the salaries of JROTC instructors.

JROTC students, alumni, and parents qualified Proposition V, an advisory measure asking the school board to retain JROTC, and it will be on the ballot for the November election. Mayor Gavin Newsom, worried about the city’s anti-military image, has endorsed V, along with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a former mayor. More surprisingly, so has the city’s gay American Legion post and several gay/lesbian student groups. Asian voters are expected to favor JROTC, which predominantly attracts Asian students. The teachers’ union is neutral.

Choice for Students, the pro-V campaign, says JROTC instructors don’t recruit. If they do, they’re doing a lousy job: nearly all JROTC participants graduate and go on to college while only three to five percent enter the military. Non-JROTC students, who are less likely to go to college, are more likely to enlist, says Nelson Lum of Choice for Students.

San Francisco cadets “ask” and “tell” all they want. Gay and bisexual cadets told the school board that JROTC is a safe place to come out. Openly gay students regularly hold top leadership posts. JROTC attracts students who want to learn discipline, work as a team, rise to leadership roles, and volunteer for community service projects. They compete on drill teams, play on drum squads, and go on field trips. Those who participate for three or four years — most do not — run school activities and classes.

Over and over again, JROTC cadets say it creates a sense of “family,” that it gives them a place to be after school, that it gives them a reason to show up every day. JROTC attracts students who want the camaraderie and discipline of sports, but aren’t able to make a team, says Johnny Wang, campaign director for Proposition V. Half the cadets — and most of the leaders — are female.

The board’s promised non-military alternative is an ethnic studies course that’s supposed to lead into classes with community service and leadership components in future years. Few students have signed up, reports the San Francisco Chronicle. Some were assigned when their preferred electives filled up.

Teacher Wentworth Houston helped develop the ethnic studies curriculum with no thought of replacing JROTC or teaching leadership. “We’re actually being used,” he told the Chronicle. “Ethnic studies committee members don’t support using the course as a replacement and don’t support doing away with JROTC.”

With ethnic studies teachers going wobbly, Sanchez suggested a conflict resolution class as a JROTC alternative. “Peer Resources … offers leadership training, service learning and a family-like environment — characteristics often assigned as the best attributes of JROTC,” he wrote in an op-ed column.

Some students may get jazzed by ethnic studies or peer counseling, but they’re not likely to be the kids who are turned on by marching, drilling, and drumming. Nationwide, about half a million students in 3,351 schools participate in JROTC. More than 700 schools are on the waiting list.

The program has doubled in size since the 1992 Los Angeles riots, pushed by Gen. Colin Powell, who sold JROTC as a way to motivate inner-city students.

Chicago has become a JROTC hub with 45 school programs, including Army and Navy academies. Several middle schools now offer a military cadet program as an after-school activity. Inner-city parents see military-style programs as a way to keep their kids busy, safe, and out of trouble. JROTC instructors are military retirees; most are male. That’s a big draw for children growing up without fathers.

Anti-war activists have targeted JROTC, charging that it promotes militarism and recruits immature teenagers who might otherwise go to college. However, a 2004 Pentagon study found JROTC has little effect on the decision to enlist, once self-selection is factored out. Nationwide, about 40 percent of JROTC graduates enlist, enter college ROTC, or say they plan to join the military. But only the most motivated students stick with the program for four years and count as JROTC grads. Typically, students participate in JROTC for a year or two — especially if they can earn a PE or social studies credit — but then decide they have no room in their schedules. College-bound students favor electives that will impress admissions officers. Low-performing students now take double English and double math, forfeiting time for electives, thanks to No Child Left Behind.

JROTC builds self-discipline, teamwork, motivation, and confidence, according to a 1999 study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies based in Washington, D.C.. JROTC participants earn higher grades than their classmates and get in less trouble.

Of course, that can be true of other activities. Many teens are searching for something that will claim their allegiance. They may seem like slackers but they crave order, structure, purpose, pride, and camaraderie. Athletes find it playing on a sports team. Musicians find it marching in the band. Creative types find it staging the school play. Some in-betweeners find it in JROTC. Others find it in a gang.

If San Francisco loses JROTC, it will lose students.