Friday, May 2, 2008 | Sixteen year old Anay Barajas was startled to see the Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps on her schedule at Mission Bay High School. She hadn’t asked for the class, she said, and didn’t know much about it. Two weeks into the military-sponsored class, Barajas decided to transfer out. She pestered her counselor, and left after another week.
Next semester the class reappeared on her schedule, she said. Barajas said she persisted with her counselor, enlisted her parents for help, and was removed from the class again, this time after two weeks.
“Why would you put me there again?” Barajas said. “It’s like they do it a second time to see if it works.”
Scheduling surprises aren’t out of the ordinary for San Diego Unified students. Teens shut out of their desired class may find themselves enrolled in an unwanted course, from cabinet making to art to keyboarding. If they dislike it, they can request a transfer.
But when that unwanted elective is Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps, a storied and controversial class linked to the military, the dilemma takes on another dimension. And in San Diego Unified schools, that predicament has spilled into heated protests before the school board, ugly accusations of tracking students into the military and tense exchanges between one embattled principal and protesting teens.
State law prohibits schools from requiring students to take a military class such as JROTC. Nationwide, such classes are taught by retired or active servicemembers and are jointly sponsored by schools and the military, which pays for books, uniforms, rifles, technology and a portion of instructor salaries. Meant to instill leadership, citizenship and self esteem, the classes span topics from stress management to first aid to military customs. Some also teach marksmanship during class or after school, using air rifles in controlled ranges.
Taking a step beyond state law, San Diego Unified mandates that instructors gather forms with parent signatures before allowing students to wear uniforms, go on field trips, or otherwise participate in JROTC. Military instructors pass out the forms when class begins, and teens can be slow to return them. Though some instructors issue grades for students returning the forms promptly, there is no absolute deadline for students to return them, nor for instructors to cut students without permission from the class.
Program manager Jan Janus advises his instructors to get permission slips back by the second week of class or risk being penalized during annual JROTC inspections. But kids are kids, he said, and often forget. Janus found that five JROTC students lacked permission forms during an April visit to Lincoln High School. Slip-ups reveal that the system of enrolling students may be imperfect, he said, but hardly sinister.
“This idea that we’re shanghaiing kids for Mr. Bush’s illegal war, putting up kids as cannon fodder — that’s ridiculous,” Janus said. If a student is improperly enrolled, “give me a name! I’ll personally stop it. [The protesters] have given me zero names.”
Critics interpret the California law to limit JROTC enrollment to students who actively and intentionally choose the class, and say parental consent should be prerequisite, not after the fact. If a teen hasn’t chosen JROTC and struggles to transfer out, she is effectively required to take the class, they contend.
“Whether it’s widespread or if it’s one [student], it violates the Educational Code,” said Mshinda Nyofu, founder of the nonprofit UJIMA Institute for Civic Responsibility, a local social justice group. “And it means that students can be placed in there involuntarily.”
Scheduling Can Limit Student Choices
Nyofu helped spearhead the Education Not Arms Coalition, which opposes the existence of rifle ranges in ten of the 13 San Diego Unified schools that offer JROTC. Founded to oppose the rifles, the coalition has evolved to encompass a vocal group of Mission Bay High School students and an outspoken teacher who allege that students are involuntarily placed and kept in the classes.
To survive, the military-sponsored classes usually must enroll a minimum of 100 students. If enrollment in a JROTC program falls short for several years, it risks probation and eventual closure. Mission Bay is the sole San Diego unit that is under-enrolled, with only 97 students taking the class in September. The new unit has two years to build its enrollment, Janus said.
Protesters allege that Mission Bay students were improperly enrolled to boost JROTC numbers and ensure the program’s existence. Two students, Anay Barajas and Karen Figueroa, have publicly stated that they were involuntarily enrolled in JROTC at the Pacific Beach school, which added the program and rehabbed a vacant classroom as an air rifle range this year in response to student demand.
Spanish teacher Luis Villanueva said roughly 15 more Mission Bay students have approached him privately, saying they didn’t choose the JROTC class and aren’t sure how to get out. Schedules grow sticky as the quarter progresses, and desirable classes are often packed, he said.
“At the beginning of the year, I had 60-something students in one class,” Villanueva said. “More than 20 kids had to go somewhere else. They say, ‘I want to take this class.’ No, there’s no room. ‘Then what can I take?’ Well, they say, we have JROTC.”
“The principal says it’s just another option,” Villanueva said. “That’s a lie. It’s not an option, because all the choices aren’t available for all the students.”
Denying their claims, Mission Bay Principal Cheryl Seelos invited school board members to view the students’ completed permission forms. San Diego Unified turned down a voiceofsandiego.org request to see the forms, saying they were confidential student records.
Parent Pat Hom, a supporter of the JROTC program, said scheduling mishaps were common after the school changed its scheduling system. Her own son was accidentally enrolled in chemistry instead of computer class and encountered a packed class when he tried to switch. He took drama instead. As Hom describes it, the firestorm over JROTC enrollment was sparked not by military zeal, but by the mundane necessities of shuffling schedules in a counselor’s office.
“Talk to any student on any given day, and you’ll find someone who has their schedule messed up. The counselors have a tremendous job of fitting each student’s requests into the day and having it fit,” Hom said.
“You either roll with it,” she added, “or you have a cow.”
War Overshadows Generations-Old Program
As a military town sours on a faraway war, the phenomenon has touched a nerve. The fallout from the Iraq war motivated Ernie McCray, a retired principal and Marines veteran, to join Education Not Arms. Rick Jahnkow, coordinator of the Encinitas-based Project on Youth and Non-Military Opportunities, said the unpopular war has focused negative attention on the circuit that pulls teens into the military — a circuit he argued includes JROTC.
Yet despite the recent eruption of dissent, neither JROTC nor the rifle ranges are new to San Diego. Since 1919, the program has taught citizenship, teamwork, and discipline to generations of junior cadets. At San Diego High School, senior military instructor Tim Hughey proudly displayed dozens of student trophies and spoke eagerly about his students collecting thousands of pounds of food for the hungry. Decades ago he was drafted to Vietnam, and his dreams of teaching seemed to be dashed.
He would never teach “a military class,” he said, and he doesn’t think that JROTC is one. Military recruiters are barred from visiting the San Diego High JROTC.
“This is about leadership and self-esteem,” Hughey said. “People tell these kids they are nobodies, all the time. Now look at them. They can speak in public. They are confident in themselves. And they are proud of who they are.”
Hughey keeps after students to return permission forms and doesn’t allow laggards to stay enrolled past the second week, said Scott Giusti, principal of one of six schools that compose San Diego High. Physical education is offered during the same class period so that students have an alternative to JROTC, Giusti explained. If students don’t want to take JROTC, instructors said they don’t want to teach them.
“I don’t want a student that’s going to be mad at the world because they were stuck here,” said Lawrance Mayorga, a JROTC instructor at San Diego High.
But not every JROTC is as diligent as San Diego High in confirming parent consent, as the missing permission forms at Lincoln High School indicate. And the forms are only available in English despite the substantial numbers of San Diego parents who don’t speak the language, a factor that worried San Diego Unified trustee Luis Acle. Nearly 47 percent of JROTC students in San Diego Unified are Hispanic. Responding to Acle’s concern, Seelos offered to translate the permission form into Spanish.
The debate over JROTC has been especially sharp at Mission Bay High School. Student complaints of being stopped from distributing protest flyers at a February open house spurred a cautionary letter from the American Civil Liberties Union. Roughly 20 students staged a walkout in March. Mission Bay dominated public comment at the last San Diego Unified school board meeting, where hundreds of JROTC dissenters lifted neon orange signs reading “Educacion Si, Armas No” — education yes, weapons no.
When principal Cheryl Seelos attempted to defend the program, the back-and-forth took an ugly turn. Denouncing a student protester’s statements as “untrue,” Seelos violated state and federal law by volunteering sensitive medical information about the student in an April 23 e-mail to voiceofsandiego.org. The newspaper had not asked for the information. Seelos was subsequently disciplined for violating student privacy, according to Assistant Superintendent Nellie Meyer, who declined to specify the discipline.
Efforts to revise JROTC policies stalled at the San Diego Unified school board, where nobody seconded trustee John de Beck’s motion to mandate pre-enrollment forms for JROTC. Within the district, Meyer plans to review enrollment and permission procedures in JROTC classes.
“It’s OK for schools to have JROTC,” Barajas said. “But not the way they’re doing it.”