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.Continue reading