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The anti-JROTC contingent is convinced the program is a rotten tool of recruitment into a homophobic military that, if not creating cannon fodder for America's wars of imperialism, pumps out "yes sir" automatons who don't question the military like they do. The JROTC folks insist they take misfits and brainiacs, the straight and the queer, and turn them into leaders who respect themselves, each other, and their country.
And as the issue gets mulled by school board committees this month, only one outcome is assured. Someone will lose.
On a basketball court behind Lowell High School, the members of the JROTC flag team counted to 20, whipping flag poles in sharp movements like so many ninja samurai. The props themselves are ingrained with San Francisco values: In the mid-'90s, the school board banned the air rifles used in target practice and the decoy ones used in drill competition, leaving the cadets to twirl the politically safer poles instead.
You could say San Francisco's program has been neutered: JROTC lite. Take Greg Bullard, the instructor at Lowell, who for the last six years has skipped over the introduction to the military branches in the curriculum: "Basically, we molded it to the society," he said. "We adapted." The program changed "uniform day" from the once-a-week requirement to just once a month after school. In a school where even the faculty supervisor for the Republican Club is a registered Democrat, one student said he changes out of his uniform for a class with one teacher rumored to give JROTC students lower grades.
The JROTC program has been in the crosshairs since at least the '80s, but opponents didn't have the votes to phase out the program until 2006, when school board president Dan Kelly, a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, and Commissioner Mark Sanchez wrote the resolution that the program was an "inappropriate extension of the nation's military into the civilian sphere."
Since then, the JROTC has toned down even more. Galileo moved drum practice inside the school to appease neighbors, who'd complained for years. Mission halted uniform day altogether this year. "We decided, let's leave the uniforms in the closet until this thing washes over," said instructor Michael Collier, a retired Green Beret. The physical conditioning team at Lowell abandoned the camouflage uniforms that had long elicited the middle finger and catcalls from passing cars. ("We know they're the real idiots," one student said about the taunts.)
Then there's the depletion of the ranks. Participation was hit hard by the board's decision last summer to revoke the classes' physical education (PE) credit, down from 1,600 students three years ago to around 600 now. The decision forced the district to hire nine new PE teachers to handle the increased class load. At the same time, the district continues to split the average $84,500 salary of the 12 JROTC staffers with Cadet Command, the Virginia-based body that oversees the 1,645 Army JROTC programs in the country and all but one in San Francisco. The instructors additionally receive a retirement pension from the Army; all in all, they earn the same as if they were still on active duty at their age and rank. The program costs the district a total of about $1 million a year.
Seeing the board was not budging on its decision, a couple of fathers of former cadets and activists formed Choice for Students and paired with the JROTC to organize students to canvass the city and collect 13,600 signatures to put Prop. V, an advisory measure that encouraged the board to keep JROTC in the schools, on the November ballot. JROTC students interviewed for this article said they enjoyed persuading voters to sign their petition, but critics say the kids are being used. "The military has used the kids to express the military's interests, which is to keep the program," Sanchez said. "To provide transportation, to have them rally for the ballot measure, to tell the kids in various ways they need to go to these meetings, from insinuating their grades would be affected to telling them that. From what I've privately discussed with kids, that's what's been happening."
The issue has divided the city. Bullard was called a "Bushite fascist" by a woman his students asked for a signature, and a coalition of antiwar and veterans' groups played to San Franciscans' deep suspicion of the military. "JROTC helps assure a steady supply of cannon fodder for the military aggression that has characterized the Bush administration," the ballot argument by Bay Area Labor Committee for Peace & Justice stated, and sets the students up "to return in a body bag, or physically maimed and psychologically scarred."
The JROTC measure won 55 percent of the vote, favored in nearly all districts except the Mission, the Castro, and Noe Valley. Yet the proposition was nonbinding, and JROTC critics say that with money from the Chamber of Commerce, and commercial real estate and downtown business lobbying groups, the Prop. V advocates outspent their detractors 13 to 1: "I don't think that 55 percent is a mandate," school board member Jane Kim says.
Aside from the program's militaristic image problem, there was a rainbow-hued elephant in the room. The 2006 school board resolution argued that the district won't partner with organizations that discriminate based on sexual orientation, such as the military with its "don't ask, don't tell" policy. (Although required by law to provide the Boy Scouts building access, the district no longer has an in-school partnership with them for the same reason.)