By Jorge Mariscal
The controversy at Mission Bay High School (MBHS) over the establishment of a Marine Corps JROTC has reopened the debate about the role of the military in our public schools.
In a July 28 editorial that endorsed supporters of the program, the San Diego Union Tribune took a cheap shot at activists working to keep public school students safe from undue military influence, and then followed with a non-sequiter about how a student “faced with a terrorist” might “run to the nearest Marine.” The politics of fear have worked for the administration in D.C. Why shouldn’t the Union Tribune trot it out?
But let’s be honest. This debate isn’t about options or terrorism.
By presenting MCJROTC as just another option, the MBHS principal and the Union Tribune chose to ignore the fact that a high percentage of JROTC participants pass directly into the ranks of the military. According the Navy’s website, approximately 40% of all NJROTC program graduates enlist. In El Paso, Texas, 63% of all JROTC cadets said they plan to enlist.
In its own internal documents, the Marine Corps state that one of the objectives of MCJROTC is to “develop an interest in the Military Services as a possible career.”
If JROTC is just another option and not an indoctrination and early recruitment program, why is it setting its sights on the youngest of children? The MCJROTC instructor’s handbook says, “The primary audience of prospective cadets are [sic] the incoming 8th graders and their parents.” It advises instructors to promote public activities that “can increase the interest of middle school students in your program.”
Middle school students? Are elementary schools next? In fact, there are already over 300 “Young Marine” units across the country enlisting 8, 9, and 10 year-olds, dressing them in uniforms, and putting them through “boot camp.”
In its editorial supporting the MCJROTC proposal, the Union Tribune made another misleading (and offensive) assertion“poor kids from the streets” need options beyond “gang-banging and dropping out.”
Assuming Union Tribune readers accept this prejudicial stereotype of low-income students of color (who make up 75% of the MBHS student body), it should be public knowledge that according to MCJROTC’s own directives genuinely “at-risk” youth are excluded from participating in the program. Instructors are advised: “The first consideration for removing a problem cadet from the program is to do it early or (even better) not allow them into the program to begin with.”
There are other troubling issues surrounding JROTC units. One is the involuntary placement of students. It is not uncommon to hear stories from high school students about how they were assigned to JROTC classes without their consent even though the California Education Code specifically makes such a practice illegal (Section 51750).
Other questions have to do with JROTC curriculum and teacher competency. In 1994, a review of the Air Force JROTC curriculum done by the San Diego City Schools Instructional Materials Department uncovered numerous objectionable aspects, including inaccuracies and a “lack of sensitivity to ethnic groups, women and religion.” Parents, school board members, and professional historians should have been allowed to examine current Navy JROTC and new Marine Corps JROTC textbooks before a decision was made on the MBHS proposal.
Finally, JROTC instructors are not required to pass the California Basic Educational Skills Test (CBEST), an exam that every other California teacher must pass for a credential.
In light of all these potential problems and the lack of due diligence on the part of the school administration, the Union Tribune’s casual claim that “poor and minority” youth and their parents want MCJROTC at MBHS is based on the thinnest of evidence. In fact, a number of students at MBHS are already organizing against it. Last Monday, the first community pickets went up outside the school and organizers learned that at least three MBHS students already had been enrolled involuntarily in JROTC.
One of the few heroes in this rush to militarize another San Diego high school was School Board trustee John de Beck. By insisting that the community have more input into a decision about whether or not a paramilitary subculture of uniforms and weapons ought to be inserted into a public school, he was protecting the 14 to 18 year-old children who are the Pentagon’s target. The Union Tribune, by invoking terrorism, chose instead to use scare tactics in order to get the school board to approve a program that was never properly vetted by educators and the community.
Jorge Mariscal is a veteran of the U.S. war in Vietnam and a member of the Project on youth and Non-Military Opportunities. He teaches at the University of California, San Diego.