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.”
However, according to Brandais, the district’s media representative, the school district has not received any formal complaints concerning students in the program who do not want to be there. “We require all of our students to return a consent form for the class,” he says. “Our assistant superintendent has never received an appeal call from a parent about their child in Junior ROTC. Now, if the parent wants their child to be in the program, but the student doesn’t want to be there, then that’s a matter the student must resolve with the parent.”
Jorge Mariscal, professor of literature at UCSD and a Vietnam War veteran, feels that it is a common occurrence for students who have not chosen the elective to be placed in the class. “The most troubling development in some Los Angeles and San Diego schools is the placement of students in JROTC programs without student or parent consent,” he says. “This is an infringement on students’ rights, and any school official that condones this practice should be reprimanded.”
The coalition’s final objection to the military science program stems from allegations that JROTC instructors are recruiting cadets by stating that the course meets college eligibility requirements. Jahnkow, of Project YANO, says, “Even those who choose to go into the program are often doing it based on misinformation given to them to hype the program and make them believe that it provides benefits it really doesn’t. Specifically, students have been told this will help them qualify for college, when, in fact, the credits that students get for this elective aren’t even counted by colleges, and the grades aren’t even counted for eligibility for financial aid.”
Brandais disagrees. “It does help them on the college applications, for a couple of reasons,” he says. “One is the shooting program is an NCAA sport, so there are scholarships available for that, and if they decide to go into the military science field and enter the college ROTC program, it helps to get in. The final one is that it qualifies as a leadership skill, and that is one of the things they judge you on on college applications.”
Captain Gladimiro Vasquez, professor of military science and a recruiting officer for San Diego State’s ROTC program, acknowledges that the high school program does not meet any college eligibility requirements. “It is considered a leadership quality, though,” he says, “and that’s equivalent…kind of like ASB president or something like that. They ask for extracurricular activities, and JROTC would be something you put down for that.”
In recent months, there have been accusations of intimidation by school administrators. Mission Bay High students said that in April during a school walkout protesting the program, school faculty followed them with a video recorder. Students also reported that a school administrator confiscated an anti-JROTC button a student was wearing and never returned it.
More serious allegations surfaced from Mission Bay High students claiming that during an open house on February 20, principal Cheryl Seelos prevented them from passing out leaflets. The action prompted the American Civil Liberties Union to send a formal letter of complaint nine days later to the principal and to the district’s general counsel requesting no further infringement on the students’ right to free speech.
In late April, matters got even worse for Seelos, according to a May 2 Voice of San Diego story, when she released a student protester’s confidential medical records to the publication in an attempt to defend the school’s program. Assistant superintendent Nellie Meyer told the Voice that the action led to an unspecified disciplinary action by the school board. According to Brandais, the situation has also resulted in a districtwide ban on JROTC instructors and school administrators from commenting on the program.
Brandais says the gag order will remain until completion of the school district’s independent investigation on the policies of the military science program as well as the actions taken by school administrators in response to the mounting opposition. “We’re hoping to have the review completed by the end of the school year,” he says. “If it goes beyond the end of the school year, we have telephone numbers to contact parents and students. If parents want to contact the staff, they can call the office of Nellie Meyer, assistant superintendent for high schools.”