JROTC and Proposition V: Lessons in How Not to Listen

Sidebar: "Moderate vs. Progressive?"

For a measure that is completely nonbinding there is much sturm und drang around the "Policy Against Terminating Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC) in Public High Schools."

Debate is a limited commodity in the case of Proposition V; instead the two sides talk past and through each other — loudly and heatedly. They also make claims that cannot be verified.


The simple fact about Proposition V is that all it does is urge the San Francisco Board of Education not to eliminate JROTC — and the school board is free to ignore the measure if it passes.

Despite all the fuss, the city controller said Proposition V will have no fiscal consequences for the city.

Ideological Battle

But the spat over JROTC is really more about a case of two alternate worldviews that just happen to occupy the same space-time continuum.

On the one hand there is the moderate/conservative "leave politics out of school yard" crowd that wants students to make their own decision about JROTC.

They say this dispute is all about saving a successful local program teaching leadership skills to youth.

On the other is the view that "politics" can’t be left outside the school gates, particularly when it involves anything that smacks of both discrimination and militarism.

Opponents see JROTC a central part of Department of Defense efforts to recruit and maintain a steady supply of "cannon fodder" for foreign wars, as well as supporting the "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy in gay- and lesbian-friendly San Francisco.

Unverified Assertions

At the heart of the Proposition V argument is the contention that JRTOC is a successful local civics program that students should have the choice to join if they wish.

Proponents assert that the program is overwhelmingly supported by parents, teachers, administrators and students.

"It is a good program," said Michael Bernick of Choice for Students. "There is no reason it should be eliminated due to local politics."

In the San Francisco voter handbook, supporters say that JROTC "teaches students discipline, leadership skills and the importance of civic responsibility" to 1,600 cadets in San Francisco schools.

They stress that 90 percent of the cadets "are from minority groups," that 88 percent of the student leaders were female in the last two years, and that there are openly lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender cadets and cadet leaders.

Supporters also say a significant portion of JROTC cadets wind up in college — more than non-cadets, in fact.

They also note that only 3 percent of San Francisco cadets join the military — considerably fewer than nationwide statistics, which vary from 45 percent according to the ACLU, to 30-40 percent according to Bernick.

However, not all of the assertions can be verified.

Gentle Blythe, the school district’s communications director, said no statistics are available to back the assertion that more JROTC students get into college than other students.

Actual JROTC enrollment is significantly down from the 1,600 cited in the voters’ guide. There are now between 500 to 1,050 cadets according to Bernick and a July 2007 San Francisco school district handout (search for "jrotc"), respectively.

Blythe said the percentage of youth of color in JROTC is roughly comparable with school district demographics as a whole, which means JROTC neither targets, nor underserves, communities of color.

The fact that the proportion of female students in JROTC is roughly double compared to the general student population could indicate the program offers advantages for female students.

Military Recruitment Tool

Choice is not the issue for opponents of Proposition V, nor is the popularity of the program with students, teachers, parents and administrators.

"JROTC is one of the Pentagon’s primary military recruitment tool," asserts the No on V Web site. "The San Francisco School Board decided to phase out JROTC because San Franciscans do not want military recruiters in our schools, and do not support a program that discriminates against the LGBT community with its ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policies."

Barry Hermanson, a Green Party congressional candidate for San Francisco’s 12th district, goes even further, by linking the program with the Bush administration.

"International law said that militaries around the world should not recruit children under 17 years of age," he said. "Former defense secretary [William] Cohen said JROTC is one of the best recruitment devices we could have. Proponents say, ‘We are not recruiting,’ but I maintain by bringing retired military staff into our schools … you are recruiting students."

The problem is that this is accurate only in the most general sense — that JROTC raises the profile of the military on local public-school campuses.

It could be argued that JROTC students are more predisposed to recruitment, but if that were the case, more than 3 percent of San Francisco’s JROTC cadets would be joining the military.

Proposition V advocates vociferously deny that JROTC allows the recruiting of cadets.

They say, backed by the Blythe of the SFUSD, that it is the federal No Child Left Behind law that governs military recruitment access to students.

"JROTC has nothing to do with this process," said Bernick. "If recruiters want to visit schools they must access the school through the main office, not JROTC."

The other primary argument used against proposition V is that JROTC is partly funded by the Defense Department, which administers the "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy.

Opponents say this results in secondhand discrimination against lesbian and gay people, because it is unlikely that they will be hired as JROTC instructors.

‘Don’t Ask’ Conflicts

Proponents of Proposition V said they too oppose the "Don’t Ask" policy, and have lobbied against it, but that it does not apply locally.

They also assert that San Francisco’s JROTC could be a model for the rest of the nation, and note that one of the ballot arguments favoring proposition V was written by Michael Thomas, a gay African American JROTC graduate.

Yet Gentle Blythe of the local school district notes that instructors for the program have to be veterans certified by the JROTC, which means they must have an honorable discharge — something much harder for openly gay and lesbian individuals to get.

Alan Lessick of the pacifist American Friends Service Committee said Thomas "can participate in the program, but it is unequal, because other people earn benefits that he does not."

Even if openly gay and lesbian youth in the local program are not discriminated against, he said, this will change when and if they go on to join the military, because they will be ineligible for ROTC college scholarships and other educational benefits available to heterosexual cadets.

About the only thing these opposing parties all agree on is that a very small percent JROTC students from the San Francisco Unified School District wind up joining the military — unlike the rest of the country where at least a third of JROTC students end up in boot camp.

Whichever way the vote goes on Nov. 4, one this is clear, this issue will not be resolved by Nov. 5 and both sides will remain at loggerheads.


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Tim Kingston is a veteran investigative and general assignment reporter in the Bay Area. His stories and opinion articles have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Columbia Journalism Review, San Francisco Bay Guardian, East Bay Express, San Jose Mercury New, AlterNet and The Nation, among other outlets.