Advocates of the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps see it as a valuable program that instills leadership and discipline skills in teenagers, while critics view it as a military recruiting tool for the youngest and most vulnerable.
In March, the Lodi Unified School District board narrowly approved curriculum for a year-long course that focuses on classroom and laboratory instruction in the history, customs, traditions and purpose of the Army JROTC. But, even the discussion brought up strong opinions from school board members on either side of the political fence.
The emotional debate was primarily between two trustees: Bonnie Cassel and George Neely, both retired military and retired teachers.
“I don’t believe it is our role as a board to start our students down a career path at such a young age,” Cassel said in March. “We could be condoning a system when they become adults that puts them in harm’s way.”
She stands behind her feelings that 13- and 14-year-olds should not be affiliated with a military-sponsored program in a public school setting, and that any decision to enlist should be left to students’ parents, family or friends. She could not be reached to elaborate for this story.
Neely believes it can create leadership and life skills.
“Like the other career-related courses offered, JROTC is not a requirement. It is an elective,” Neely said. “The choice to participate will be up to parents and their students. I sincerely believe that while JROTC is not for all students, for some it will make all the difference.”
Bringing it to Lodi Unified was the brainchild of McNair High School principal Jim Davis. He says that JROTC is a stimulus for promoting graduation from high school and provide opportunities that will benefit the student, community and nation. He has been involved with similar programs at high schools in Manteca and Hanford.
Every year, he said 15 to 20 of his current students ask for the program. He has been working to bring it to McNair since the campus opened six years ago.
“The whole idea is to give students another option,” Davis said. “There’s a misconception this is a recruiting arm for the military. The kids (from JROTC) that end up going into the military are doing so because they want to.”
The first semester would focus on the development of basic leadership skills to include principles, values and attributes, while the second semester focuses on writing skills, oral communication and conflict management. Each grade level would be a prerequisite to the next grade.
“We’re not teaching them to be warmongers,” Davis said.
The program received support from the committee of teachers and administrators that oversees district curriculum in January. In fact, Davis said he’s heard nothing but positive comments from teachers and other staff.
Although their opinions mean little officially, the student board representatives voted against the curriculum at the March meeting.
“I don’t agree with the things that were said at that meeting, but I understand people have different feelings,” Davis said. “I just hope they feel differently when we have the funding.”
It is unlikely the program will launch in the near future due to the district’s budget. Although the military picks up most of the program’s cost, Lodi Unified would be required to pay a portion of the teacher salaries.
“It’s pretty hard to lay people off and start a new program,” Davis said, adding that McNair, among the hardest hit financially, has lost 35 teaching positions in the last three years.
Providing structure, discipline
Currently, there are no JROTC programs in either the Lodi or Galt high school districts. Recruiters do visit local campuses regularly.
The closest high school JROTC programs are at Edison High School in Stockton and Manteca’s East Union High School.
The program is not recognized by colleges as elective credit as it is not taught by credentialed teachers, unlike subjects such as art and physical education. But students receive recognition through awards and ribbons they proudly don on their uniforms.
The presence of a JROTC on a campus can be political among teacher peers.
When the program was brought to Del Campo High School in the Sacramento area, the principal allowed the teachers to take a vote on whether they wanted in on campus. It narrowly passed.
Using the district’s set number of teachers to hire outside employees is what concerns Lodi trustee Ron Heberle the most. Although he voted in favor of the curriculum, he wants to have a renewed discussion about the program before it launches.
Due to the program’s military requirements, it must also be housed in a larger-than-usual classroom, which includes at least 400 square feet for uniform storage and a separate so-called briefing room.
Davis maintains it’s an asset to students seeking more structure. It could also engage those not otherwise connected to the school through sports or other extra-curricular activities, according to the principal.
“I’ve seen some great things come from the JROTC program,” he said. “I’m convinced it’s the best thing for my students and for the district as a whole. In a perfect world, I’d already have the program up and running.”
Contact reporter Jennifer Bonnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.