Professional Learning

Is JROTC at School a Benefit, or a Beachhead?

September 11, 2009

This article accompanies the feature "Students Feel the Impact When Their Teacher Is Deployed."

A young sergeant calls cadence as thick, black boots pound the pavement. Cadets fall in twice a week at 0900 hours, drill, then fall out for class. But this isn't a military base -- nor is it West Point, Annapolis, or Colorado Springs. It's the campus of Westmont High School, in Campbell, California, where the U.S. Marine Corps's Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps is a strong presence.

Westmont is not unusual. More than 450,000 students at 2,900 high schools nationwide are part of the growing JROTC movement. In addition, they participate in community service, helping out at local food drives and Toys for Tots and volunteering for Habitat for Humanity International. They engage in physical training and learn military history and even marksmanship. The U.S. Department of Defense funds about half the program, in the form of equipment and personnel training; schools make up the balance. But DOD officials insist it is not a recruitment tool, just an opportunity to teach leadership, citizenship, and respect for authority.

Classes are led by retired military personnel and active-duty noncommissioned officers. Kelly Cross, a retired Marine Forces Reserve major who runs the Westmont program, is proud of his work. "The students learn a lot about what it means to be a good citizen and about the importance of discipline," he says. Periodically, some of his JROTC students visit Camp Pendleton, the marine-recruit training base near San Diego, for a taste of the marines' rigorous boot camp.

Many teachers and administrators at Westmont say that the program has beneficial effects. Principal Owen Hege, for one, has experienced firsthand the impact on his students. "The leadership skills this program gives kids is phenomenal," says Hege. "On our campus, it's considered prestigious to be in the JROTC. Every principal wants to see leadership built in their students, and this is one way to do it."

Critics, however, wonder whether high schools are really an appropriate place for military programs. For example, more than 50 teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District who adamantly oppose the nationwide JROTC program have formed the Coalition for Alternatives to Militarism in Our Schools.

CAMS members say the JROTC teaches youths to glorify the military and want to see stronger district oversight of the program. The most outspoken critic is Arlene Inouye, a teacher at Los Angeles's Roosevelt High School and coordinator for the school's CAMS members. She says the military is doing little more than "recruiting child soldiers."

Insisting that the JROTC is not a recruiting program, the DOD says no records are kept of follow-up enlistments. The marines compile no statistics, but the U.S. Air Force claims a 40-45 percent recruitment rate from its JROTC program. (Post-high school enlistment probably varies widely, depending on the economic level where each program exists.)

Opponents point out, however, that both the marines and the U.S. Army are falling short of recruiting goals for the first time in many years and might use JROTC programs to raise their head count. Hege disagrees, claiming that the military instructors are out not to gain enlistees but to enrich students' lives. "The most important point to remember," he says, "is that JROTC is turning out some outstanding kids."

Despite the controversy, the JROTC program continues to thrive, as it has since its inception by the army in 1916. Camouflage fatigues and crisp, bemedaled uniforms will not retreat from high schools anytime soon, especially with increased U.S. military activity in the world. From the grounds of Westmont and many other campuses throughout the country, the rhythmic marching sound of the teen marines will continue to be heard loud and clear.

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