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Yes, JROTC instructors couldn't be openly gay while they were active in the military (Bullard says there are gay instructors on staff, but they've decided coming out wouldn't sway the school board). But current and past students say that JROTC has been a safe haven for LGBT kids to come out. Imbuing the program with a distinct San Francisco flavor, effeminate boys have slipped on the gloves and competed on the girls' exhibition drill team, and many girls have made the traditionally male flag team — even one who went on to take the Mr. Transgender San Francisco crown in 2004.
Bobby Cheung was an out lesbian at Lincoln High School in the mid-'90s who rose to be the highest-ranking cadet in the city. Now a transgender man active in the city's LGBT community, he says San Francisco's gays are benefiting from the leadership skills he gained in JROTC while largely condemning the program. Powell "created a safe place for queer students," he says. "So with this training, I felt safe and happy as a child so I could be a successful adult."
Company commander Vickie Chung looks out at her fifth-period class from a lectern while Bullard observes from a back desk. The program's slogan, "To Motivate Young People to Be Better Citizens," stretches out on the wall above her head.
"I'm pretty sure everyone here wants to go to college," the 17-year-old senior says. "Lowell has a reputation. Most of you will probably go to four-year colleges."
"Why do you say that?" one student asks.
"Some of you may go to city or states," she concedes, "but most of you are aiming for higher education."
With no more questions, Chung assigns the students to brainstorm six colleges they want to attend for homework. Part of the career unit in the national JROTC curriculum includes a lesson on military careers, but she skipped it: "I thought it would be weird to focus on just one career." Bullard had no problem with that.
Chief in the opponents' case against JROTC is that the program is a recruiting tactic, a practice the school board banned on district campuses in 1991, until the federal No Child Left Behind Act a decade later mandated that the military must be granted the same access to students as other postgraduate options.
The opposition points to congressional testimony that a high percentage of JROTC graduates eventually join the armed services nationwide: 40 percent, according to a House Armed Services Committee report in 1999. Yet in San Francisco, the numbers aren't nearly that high. In a 2007 survey of 848 JROTC students, 16 percent indicated an interest in a military career. While the district doesn't track students after graduation, JROTC instructors say, anecdotally, only 2 to 3 percent of graduating seniors enlist directly after high school, while more than 90 percent attend college. "The Army has to decide if it wants to continue funding a program that's not helping its recruiting numbers," Bullard says. If you count the kids who've won congressional appointments to the United States Military Academy at West Point or ROTC scholarships, he estimates 6 percent of JROTC graduates from Lowell have joined the military in the 12 years he's taught there, the highest number in the city.
Some military critics don't care how many kids are enlisting. "If you're more successful in one school district than another, you're still a recruiter," says Dan Kelly, the former school board member who introduced the resolution to eliminate JROTC in 2006. "They know they're in San Francisco and that would be a very unpopular thing to say."
The program maintains in its promotional materials and its national curriculum that the program is not a recruiting tool. "Certainly we do have young people that take a look at what military service offers, and make that choice," Cadet Command spokesman Kotakis says. "And we're delighted about it. But we're also delighted if they move into positions in the private sector, and continue onto college. We don't track it." The San Francisco JROTC instructors' view on sending kids into the military is anything but gung-ho: "I would feel like an idiot if they wanted to be like me, make the choice I did 30 years ago, and go off to Iraq and get killed," says instructor Steve Hardee at Galileo.
Vickie Chung has fought the program's association with the military firsthand. She signed up for JROTC in eighth grade, knowing she would have to wage a battle for the heart and mind of her pacifist mother, who had forced Chung's older brother to transfer out of Galileo eight years earlier where he was a freshman JROTC cadet, and told Vickie: "I don't want you to go to Iraq and die."
Chung credits JROTC with changing her — but not into a warrior. She says she entered Lowell "shy but cocky" in her freshman year, but now teaches a class and has learned how to cooperate in her drill team, leaving the leading to the commander. If all you see are kids marching and obeying commands, she says, you aren't looking hard enough. The students take pride in perfecting their routines in much the same way as a cheerleader squad or marching band would value getting everyone in step.