Junior ROTC falters under fire
At L.A.’s Roosevelt High, teachers and students work to end the program, and its numbers are dropping.
By Sonia Nazario, Times Staff Writer
First Sgt. Otto Harrington — tall, muscular, his head cleanshaven — has soldiered through battles in Bosnia, Kuwait and Somalia. He has patrolled Korea’s DMZ.
None of that prepared him, though, for the attacks he has faced as senior teacher in the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps at Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights, where students and teachers have launched a crusade against military recruiting and JROTC.
Harrington blames their campaign for cutting the number of cadets at Roosevelt by 43% in four years, from 286 to 162. Some teachers urge students not to sign up for JROTC, he said,and have worked to end involuntarily placement in the program.
“They seem to think I’m some evil, horrible soldier down here trying to sacrifice our kids to Iraq,” Harrington said in describing the increasing tensions on the Eastside campus.
The program’s critics see JROTC as a Trojan horse targeting students in low-income minority schools with high dropout rates. “We are a juicy target,” said Roosevelt social studies teacher Jorge Lopez.
At Roosevelt and other schools in the L.A. Unified School District, the anti-JROTC movement has helped drive a 24% drop in enrollment since 2003-04, Harrington and his critics said. The decline runs counter to enrollment nationwide, which grew 8% to 486,594 cadets between 2001 and 2006, fueled by a 57% jump in federal funding, according to the Department of Defense.
Roosevelt’s “Rough Rider Battalion” was once among JROTC’s finest, a powerhouse that routinely bested rivals in citywide competitions. In 1990, when the program had 400 cadets, the battalion’s girls’ drill team won the national championship.
JROTC students have uniforms and attend one cadet class each day, learning skills that include financial planning, map reading and how to give a PowerPoint presentation.
The Department of Defense-sponsored program, which is in 30 of L.A. Unified’s 61 high schools, also includes physical education, target practice and marching drills. JROTC participants have no obligation to join the military, but students who complete the program are entitled to higher starting pay if they enlist.
Roosevelt 11th-grader Jesse Flores said that as recently as his freshman year, students didn’t think less of kids for being in JROTC; some even stopped cadets to admire ribbons and medals pinned to their uniforms. “Now,” Jesse said, “everyone says JROTC is bad.”
Many teachers are openly hostile toward JROTC, Jesse said, and some wear T-shirts that say “A War Budget Leaves Every Child Behind.”
Arlene Inouye, a speech therapist formerly at Roosevelt, said she thinks anti-military advocacy by teachers is a counterbalance to a strong military presence on campus. She said she once counted 14 recruiters approaching lunchtime crowds of students in Roosevelt’s quad, handing out “Join the Army” book covers and promising adventure, travel and money for college.
In 2003, concerned that students weren’t hearing the other side, she founded the Coalition Against Militarism in Our Schools. The group has spread to 50 Los Angeles-area schools, providing member teachers with literature, speakers, films and books.
Their efforts are possible in part because of a U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in 1986 that requires public schools that allow recruiters on campus to give counter-recruiters a shot at addressing students.
At Roosevelt, the coalition teamed with United Students, a group of students and teachers working to improve education on the Eastside and get more Latinos into college.
United Students’ 100 Roosevelt members began keeping track of when military recruiters were scheduled to visit so they could conduct counter-recruiting the day before.
At its annual Education Justice Week, students in the group invite college recruiters to campus and encourage students to continue their schooling rather than enlisting. They also have presented in 60 classrooms a program called “Students Not Soldiers,” which aims to expose the dark side of military life.
Nearly two dozen teachers have also shown the films “Arlington West,” put out by Veterans for Peace, and “The Ground Truth,” a documentary in which veterans condemn the war in Iraq and their treatment by the military on their return home.
Lopez, the social studies teacher, keeps a stack of glossy brochures propped on his chalkboard titled “Don’t Die in a Dead-End Job! Information for Young People Considering the Military” that show a soldier saluting flag-draped coffins. Prominent on his wall is a poster called “Ten Points to Consider Before You Sign a Military Enlistment Agreement.”
“I want to see more Latinos go to college,” Lopez said.
The warren of six JROTC rooms at Roosevelt is decorated with drawings of tanks. On the front wall of Harrington’s classroom is a row of brown- and gold-framed photographs of the chain of command, from President Bush to the secretary of Defense to JROTC instructors.
At lunch, cadets stream in, grab unloaded Springfield rifles from four gun racks and practice spinning them. The four people in the color guard, wearing white gloves and chrome helmets, maneuver their rifles in unison.
Teacher Gillian Russom said this kind of training instills the wrong values: following orders, dressing the same and relying on rote memorization rather than critical thinking. “That’s necessary for a successful military, but does it create the kind of citizens we want?”
A 1999 Center for Strategic and International Studies report, the last comprehensive assessment of JROTC, found that about 40% of students who graduated from high school with two or more years of JROTC ended up in the military.
Harrington said few of his Roosevelt students join the armed services. Only 5% of his cadets would even qualify to enlist, he said, because the rest are in the country illegally, couldn’t pass the military aptitude test, are in trouble with the law or are overweight.
“This is the worst school on the planet for a recruiter to come and think they will be successful,” he said, adding that only three Roosevelt cadets in three years have enlisted out of high school.
Still, many Roosevelt students and teachers are angered that JROTC programs are concentrated in low-income, primarily minority communities, and they tell potential cadets that JROTC is a thinly disguised effort to make more Latinos cannon fodder. Nationwide, 59.9 % of JROTC participants are students of color, according to a study by Cal State Northridge. In Los Angeles, the program is in nearly half of the city’s high schools, but none on the affluent Westside.
Teachers who oppose JROTC are also dismayed that despite a zero-tolerance policy on weapons, 10 Los Angeles high schools, including Roosevelt, have JROTC firing ranges. “This is learning to shoot at a target, preparing a mind-set to be able to kill,” said Inouye, the founder of the Coalition Against Militarism in Our Schools.
Harrington said the air rifles, which shoot pellets, are used as a sport, not for combat training. “Some people,” he said, “don’t understand shooting an air rifle isn’t shooting an M16.”
Opponents of JROTC say it drains resources from more important courses. Although the Defense Department pays half of JROTC instructors’ salaries, L.A. Unified pays the rest, as well as benefits, for a total of $3.1 million this school year. That money, United Students said, should instead be spent adding more of the 15 academic courses students need to go to college, which make up 52% of the offerings at Roosevelt.
But many JROTC students can’t imagine Roosevelt without the program.
A second chance
“For some students, the biggest reason to come to school is for JROTC,” said Harrington, noting that his students often come in at 6:30 a.m. even when they are off track.
Daniel Segura, a soft-spoken 16-year-old with a mop of brown hair and an easy smile, is one of them. He said his grades spiraled after his father died of diabetes two years ago. “I felt there was no point,” he said.
He started ditching class to go to the Santa Monica Pier and failed half his classes. Urged by a counselor to enroll in JROTC, he was at first resistant and defiant during class time. Harrington told him not to attend the program, then agreed to give him another chance if he followed the rules.
Slowly, Harrington gave Daniel more responsibility, putting him on the flag and armed drill teams and on JROTC’s courtesy patrol, which helps translate for parents at teacher conferences.
Hoping to be named to the JROTC staff and earn more responsibility, Daniel said, he plans to pass all his classes this semester and is getting a B in English.
Roosevelt students tell him he is being brainwashed to go into the Army, but he said he thinks they don’t understand what the program really is. It has taught him leadership and discipline, he said, and he has thrived on its boundaries and rules. In a bewildering school with nearly 5,000 students, JROTC has been a beacon, a place to belong.
“JROTC made me try again,” he said. Several JROTC cadets describe feeling as if they are under hostile fire from anti-military teachers.
Last year, Jesse, the 11th-grader, a master sergeant and JROTC flag detail commander, was the only student wearing a JROTC uniform in Martha Guerrero’s first-period world history class. He said that Guerrero, who often wears a “War is not the answer” T-shirt and has a flag of the revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara hanging in her classroom, sometimes asked him pointed questions in the middle of class.
“Jesse, are you going to go to Iraq and die?” she asked. “Why are you wearing a uniform? Aren’t you embarrassed?” Jesse said he felt singled out by the question and told his JROTC instructor about it.
Angered by what he saw as bullying of his student, he confronted Guerrero, who apologized to Jesse. She said she wasn’t harassing the student. “I just tell them things I know are right or wrong. I stand against war, against JROTC.”
In July, after hearing about a United Students talk in the classroom of social studies teacher Carlos Castillo, Harrington was fed up.
He stormed into Castillo’s classroom.
“I have a problem with you calling me a recruiter,” he told the other teacher. A flier handed out in Castillo’s class contained distortions, Harrington said, adding that he believes Castillo shouldn’t be allowed to discourage students from enrolling in his class.
Castillo told Harrington that JROTC’s only purpose was to promote the military.
Principal Cecilia Acosta Quemada told the two sides they had to get along. She also established ground rules: Working against enlistment of students was acceptable; overtly telling them to drop JROTC class was not.
But the battles are likely to continue. Some Los Angeles activists are pushing to follow in the footsteps of San Francisco and Lowell, Mass., both of which have taken steps to abolish JROTC.
“I want to get them completely off campus,” Castillo said.
If that happens, Harrington won’t be around to see it. Sick of the battles, he is leaving Roosevelt — and JROTC — at the end of the school year.