Chicago — Thousands of public school students have been compelled to join the military’s junior ROTC programs despite Pentagon guidelines, which state they are supposed to be elective.
According to a review of JROTC enrollment data collected from more than 200 public records requests, dozens of schools have made the programs mandatory or steered more than 75% of students in a single grade into the classes, which offer instruction on topics like leadership, civic values and weapons handling, according to the New York Times.
A huge majority of the schools with those high enrollment numbers were attended by a large number of non-white students and individuals from low-income households.
While military officials point to research that suggests JROTC students have better attendance and graduation rates, critics have contended the programs emphasize obedience over independence and critical thinking. The program’s prominence among non-white and low-income students also helps propel students into the military instead of college or jobs in the civilian economy, critics said.
Cmdr. Nicole Schwegman, a spokesperson for the Pentagon and a former JROTC student, said the program helped introduce teens to the idea of military service while operating under the educational branch of the military, not the recruiting branch.
“It’s really about teaching kids about service, teaching them about teamwork,” Schwegman said.
However she is concerned about the Time’s findings on enrollment policies, noting schools shouldn’t require students to take it.
“Just like we are an all-volunteer military, this should be a volunteer program,” she said.
The Times’ review found a number of high schools where at least three-quarters of a grade’s students were enrolled in JROTC, including in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Cape Coral, Florida; Charlotte, North Carolina; Memphis, Tennessee; Port Gibson, Mississippi; San Diego, California; Spring, Texas; and Vincent, Alabama.
In other schools, more than half of all students in some grades enrolled in the program including some in Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Dallas, Houston, Miami, St. Louis and Washington.
Schools that have been questioned about mandatory or automatic enrollments in the programs have often rolled back on their policies. That was the case in Chicago, where a school district’s inspector general found that nearly 100% of freshmen had been enrolled at four high schools that served primarily low-income students on the city’s South and West sides.
It was as “a clear sign the program was not voluntary,” stated in the inspector general’s report. In response, the district said it was updating its parental consent process and making sure students could choose between enrolling in JROTC or other physical education classes.