Eduardo Ochoa teaches social justice at Lincoln High School in Chollas View. Ochoa is also a coordinator for the Advancement Via Individual Determination program, or AVID, as everyone calls it, a high school elective designed to help midlevel students prepare for college and meet college eligibility requirements.
During this school year, six of Ochoa’s students dropped the program in favor of the military science program, the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, or JROTC. According to Ochoa, military science instructors told the students that their class was easier and would also help students get into college.
Across town, at Mission Bay High School in Pacific Beach, 11th-grader Anay Barajas was placed into the newly offered Marines JROTC class at the beginning of the school year. She says she had no idea what the class was about, but when she saw it involved drills and marching, she wanted out and into the AVID and Spanish classes that she had picked as her electives. “I went to my counselor,” Barajas says, “and she told me, ‘Yeah, we’ll call you in,’ but they never did. So after two weeks I had to get my dad to call, and they finally changed me.”
It wasn’t the end of Barajas’s experience with the military program, as was first reported in online publication Voice of San Diego. “So the second term, we got all-new classes and everything, and they put me in the class again! I was, like, ‘Wow, I already got out of the class once. Why would they put me in it again?’ ”
Ochoa and Barajas weren’t the only ones in San Diego’s public high schools who found the military science program disturbing this year. Other students and teachers have objected to the course and its policies. The complaints have led community activist groups like Encinitas-based Project on Youth and Non-Military Opportunities, known as Project YANO, to form the Education Not Arms Coalition. According to Rick Jahnkow, a founder of both the coalition and Project YANO, support has grown, and over 150 people showed up at a San Diego Unified School District board meeting in early May to show their opposition to the military science course.
JROTC has been a staple in San Diego Unified’s high schools for almost 90 years. San Diego High, the city’s first high school, adopted the program in 1919. Of the district’s 16 high schools, only 3 — La Jolla, Clairemont, and University City — do not offer the program as part of their curriculum.
The class claims to teach students leadership skills, self-reliance, and self-discipline, as well as how to set life goals. Master Chief Rik Alberto is a military science instructor at Mar Vista High, an Imperial Beach school in the Sweetwater Union High School District. “The great thing about this program, sir, is that it teaches a kid to act like an adult after high school,” Alberto says. “We teach basic leadership concepts, public speaking. We build self-confidence. We teach job-interview techniques, good manners, and self-conduct, pretty much which knife and fork to use. We basically prepare them for the adult world, sir.”
The Education Not Arms Coalition has rallied behind three points in its opposition to the military science program.
The coalition’s first concern is marksmanship training on public school grounds. Each JROTC program represents a branch of the armed forces. In San Diego Unified schools, 7 of the 13 programs are Army, 3 are Navy, 2 are Air Force, and 1 is Marines. Every program has a rifle range except for the two Air Force programs, at Scripps Ranch High and Mira Mesa High (at Crawford the range is not in use). The rifle ranges typically are in an old classroom where students, supervised by instructors, practice shooting .17-caliber air rifles at targets. Jack Brandais of the district’s Media Relations Department explains, “This is a controlled, very specific type of program. At one time it was a CIF [California Interscholastic Federation] sport. It’s still an NCAA [National Collegiate Athletic Association] sport and an Olympic sport, so it’s taught under very tight control, in tight conditions, in a specific area of the campuses.”
Lincoln High School’s Ochoa says his students questioned the mixed message the school was sending. “We teach our kids to think critically,” Ochoa says, “so as soon as my kids became conscious about a gun range on campus and other students being trained to shoot weapons, they started asking questions about the zero-tolerance policy. Since day one at this school, they’ve been told about there being no exception to having any weapons on campus, so they started making petitions and getting signatures from other students and staff members.”
Cristabel A., who graduated from San Diego High last year, was a member of the school’s Army JROTC marksmanship team. In 2007, the team won the California Junior Olympics. She recalls the experience of being on a shooting team. “For one thing, it is the one sport that needs the most teamwork,” she says. “It takes a team to win. It helps with concentration, good health, and dedication. It teaches a group of people how to be a team. Through that, the team becomes family, like my team did.”
The second concern of the Education Not Arms Coalition is that students are being placed in JROTC who have not chosen it as an elective. Once they are enrolled, it is difficult for them to transfer out. The allegations come despite a districtwide policy requiring that parents provide written consent to their child’s enrollment in the class. The instructors pass out the consent forms at the beginning of the term. However, the program’s own manager, Lieutenant Colonel Jan Janus, has reported missing forms at some schools.
Barajas, the Mission Bay High student, is aware of several classmates who had a difficult time transferring out of the class. “During the few weeks that I was in the class, some kids signed up because they thought it was going to be an easy class,” she says, “and there were others who were just placed in it without them knowing what it was. Another boy said that he was in there even though he didn’t want to be, so he told the instructor, and the instructor just told him that he was going to have to figure it out.”