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Arms and the classroom

Critics want JROTC out of Rochester schools


To its supporters, JROTC --- the Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps --- is a valuable elective, teaching students discipline and responsibility. To its critics, it is a marketing opportunity for the Pentagon, designed to entice urban, principally minority high-school students into signing up for the military. And, they say, it teaches violence as a problem solver.

Critics and supporters are expected to present those arguments at the Rochester School Board's next meeting, at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, June 15, at the district's central-office building, 131 West Broad Street. Although the board is not considering any plan to change the district's JROTC program, critics --- including Rochester Against War --- have been questioning the program's benefits since November.

Similar challenges related to the military have been successful. For example, following public protests, the board voted last year to notify parents more clearly about their right to withhold student information from military recruiters. But JROTC has strong support among School Board members and school administrators.

The JROTC program is available to publicly funded school districts throughout the country. The program curriculum and textbooks are designed by the Pentagon, and programs are administered by all four branches of the military using retired officers as instructors. District participation is voluntary, but the federal government does provide partial funding.

More than 300 students are involved in JROTC in Rochester, the only school district in MonroeCounty that offers the program. At EastHigh School, the program is administered by the Navy; at Edison Tech and Marshall, by the Army. The program costs the district nearly a quarter of a million dollars annually.

Critics of JROTC question why the district is paying for students to learn to march in military formations and conduct drills. Kathy Castania and Peter Debes, whose three children graduated from city schools, say JROTC teaches a militaristic curriculum that encourages violence as a way to resolve conflicts. It's the job of teachers and administrators to find alternative ways to motivate students, they say. Castania and Debes will be at next week's School Board meeting, as will other members of Rochester Against War.

"We believe that the school district shouldn't be putting money into this program," says Castania. "To know that our tax dollars are going toward something that contributes to violence at a time when our young people are hurting and seeing so much violence just doesn't make sense."

And, she says, becoming a soldier shouldn't be presented as a career choice in the same way that medicine and engineering is presented.

"If you look at the textbooks and review the curriculum," she says, "they are clearly designed to plant the impression in the minds of these students that the military is a career option."

As for JROTC teaching positive skills like accepting responsibility and following instructions: there are other ways to teach those skills, she says.

"If anything, we need free thinkers," she says. "We need young people to respect authority, of course. We have laws. But that doesn't mean they should be wholly responsive to authority. The argument that this is the only way to instill model citizenry doesn't hold up for me."

But JROTC supporters argue that the program has many strengths, and that it isn't oriented solely to the military.

"They have all kinds of activities, but the one that probably takes up most of their time is community service," says East Principal Kathleen Lamb. "They help out at Food Link and other community organizations and charities, and they really enjoy it. They develop communications skills and form positive relationships. And they take it very seriously. I have to say that they are my model students. They have better attendance, better GPAs, and better relationships with their teachers. I couldn't say enough positive things about them."

Marshall Principal Joseph Muno agrees. "They really take pride in the competitions," he says, "and I think competition is good. They have drills and marches that require practice and skill, and when they succeed they are so thrilled. They really like being part of something, especially when they are doing something good for others. They were part of the Erie Canal clean-up days, and they were out there on their Saturday, their day off, cleaning up trash."

Following the death of a Marshall staff member, says Muno, the family requested that the JROTC students be present during the funeral. "When they performed their duties, I am telling you, there wasn't a dry eye in the church," he says. "Everyone was so proud of them."

Having no JROTC program, says Muno, would be a serious problem. Students look forward to it, and parents are supportive.

"I would have 75 to 80 kids that I would worry about: what's going to bring them to school next year?" he says. "For a lot of students, it's not math, science, and reading that bring them to school every day. For some it's art, music, or sports. For these students, it's the JROTC. It's the one thing that they don't want to miss. And then we can give them the others once they are here. But you've got to have something that brings them in the door every day."

East High Principal Kathleen Lamb says military recruiters aren't allowed to use JROTC to make direct contact with students. And, she says, joining the military is a decision some students make early in their high-school years, and they should have some guidance in the process.

"The instructors do not push joining the military," she says. "And if a student decides to talk to military recruiters, we have teachers who talk to them after they have talked with the recruiter to try to offer some objectivity. But you must remember that this is a completely voluntary program. It's just one of the electives we offer. Students don't have to join the JROTC."

For JROTC critics, there are broader issues. Among them: discrimination and targeting poor people for military enlistment.

The school district, says School Board member Shirley Thompson, teaches diversity, but the US military has a "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy that discriminates against gays and lesbians. And, she says, the fact that the closest JROTC programs to Rochester are in the Buffalo and Syracuse school districts shouldn't be overlooked. Like Rochester, both school districts have high concentrations of poor minority students.

"Why isn't the JROTC in the suburban schools? It's an appropriate question to ask," says Thompson.

Thompson has shared her views with fellow board members and Superintendent Manuel Rivera, but funding for JROTC has been approved for at least another year.

Among the board members who disagree with Thompson is Willa Powell, who served in the military for 20 years. Only a small number of Rochester's JROTC students go on to enlist in the military, she says. And while she understands the fear that JROTC could be targeting minority, inner-city students with fewer options than their suburban counterparts, she says that's not what JROTC is doing.

"That is an extremely interesting argument to make, but you have to know the history of the JROTC," says Powell. "Truman came up with the program in the 1950's, and he was trying to integrate minorities into the military at that time. To make the argument that now the JROTC is trying to exploit minorities is interesting, but I don't think it has merit."

And, she says, JROTC is an important elective program, one that is subsidized by the federal government. "It is actually less expensive for the district than any other credit-bearing elective. It is very competitive, even when compared to sports programs," Powell says.