Eleven instructors of the Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps shuffled into the school board meeting in late March like men on death row who might be handed an 11th-hour pardon. Hopeful skeptics. Just two weeks before, the San Francisco Unified School District had sent them pink slips — proof that the school board was making good on its three-year threat to kick them to the curb.

The message, passed by a 4-3 school board vote in 2006, was this: Hell, no, you can't have a program run by retired sergeants and colonels in the peacenik capital of the Left Coast. Sorry, our kids will not goose-step around the courtyard in uniforms. As things stand now, the instructors must dismantle their programs at seven high schools in June. It's the first time anywhere in the country that JROTC has been kicked out of a school district solely on ideological grounds, according to Paul Kotakis, the program's national spokesman.

Lowell High School JROTC members wear their uniforms only once a month after school this year while the school board debates their existence.
Jake Poehls
Lowell High School JROTC members wear their uniforms only once a month after school this year while the school board debates their existence.
Assemblywoman Fiona Ma waits to speak in favor of the program
Gabriela Hasbun
Assemblywoman Fiona Ma waits to speak in favor of the program
JROTC students display signs of support at the school board meeting
Gabriela Hasbun
JROTC students display signs of support at the school board meeting
Students from an antigang group wait to speak against the program
Gabriela Hasbun
Students from an antigang group wait to speak against the program
Former JROTC cadet Armando Frias joined the Army after graduating from Galileo last year.
Gabriela Hasbun
Former JROTC cadet Armando Frias joined the Army after graduating from Galileo last year.
The Galileo JROTC flag team practices at the Presidio. The district no longer allows them to practice with decoy rifles.
Gabriela Hasbun
The Galileo JROTC flag team practices at the Presidio. The district no longer allows them to practice with decoy rifles.
Lowell senior Vickie Chung (front left) is going to UC Davis to study pre-med.
Jake Poehls
Lowell senior Vickie Chung (front left) is going to UC Davis to study pre-med.

It has been a quintessential only-in-San Francisco battle — the military ambassadors playing the rogues, and the lefty progressives as the establishment — and one that will not die. At that March board meeting, two commissioners (both of whom have taken pains to reassert their liberal antiwar credentials despite supporting the program) introduced a resolution to bring JROTC coughing back up on shore. That day's Examiner had indicated that the new post-election lineup on the school board might provide the four votes needed to do just that.

The combatants set up camp for the re-enactment of so many previous battles. Armed with their "I love JROTC" and "JROTC keeps me off the streets" posters, the clean-cut high schoolers scribbled last-minute changes to their speeches. One instructor saved a seat for Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, who introduced a bill in February to force the school board to save the program. Graying antiwar activists filed in, wearing the regalia of the left: a "Give Bush the Boot" T-shirt, "Military Out of Our Schools Now" pins, a camouflage combat jacket of a Marine who said he was out of jail for refusing to go to Iraq.

It would be a long wait. The meeting started 45 minutes late because of the tardy arrival of board president Kim-Shree Maufas, the mother of a former JROTC cadet and a skeptic of the program. With the JROTC measure scheduled for a first reading — no vote — far down in the agenda, Maufas denied a commissioner's request to move the public comment earlier in the meeting to let the kids get home, as has been done at nearly every meeting they've attended. (Ma had also requested earlier that day that the item be taken out of order, a courtesy for high-ranking officials.)

With the JROTC instructors in the lobby on edge and grumbling about "disrespect" and "delay tactics," even school district spokeswoman Gentle Blythe interpreted Maufas' move as a political statement: "I don't think this is so much a message to the kids, but to the other commissioners about whether this should have been brought up again."

Maufas finally called public comment at 9:55 p.m., three hours into the meeting. And the circus began.

Cutting in front of the dozen students lined up behind the lectern, the pinstripe-suited president of the San Francisco NAACP, Amos Brown, and Robert Powell, the head of the city's JROTC, ate up four of the allotted five minutes spitting fire at the commissioners for making the kids wait. "This is democracy? We're not in Zimbab-we!" the usually affable Powell barked. Maufas simply raised her eyebrows.

Teenagers from HOMEY (Homies Organizing the Mission to Empower Youth), an antigang group in the Mission, offered a rebuttal: "We need people to teach us right from wrong, not to shoot for our government. ...What is the JROTC doing for my community? Not nothing," one said to loud applause from the activists in the room.

After the testimony, Commissioner Jane Kim, a critic of JROTC, stated that the five-minute limit was a rule, not an insult: "I think the adults knew this, and you organized folks to come out knowing there was five minutes total," she said. JROTC instructor Greg Bullard later shot back: "Does she think we're going to let the first reading go forth without us showing our support? It's an arrogant comment, and you can print that."

Well past midnight, Maufas referred the resolution to save JROTC to three committees that will recommend how the board should vote, supposedly in May. The instructors fear this is "death by committee" (two of the committees, one of which has decided not to meet in April, have a majority of presumed opponents) or a delay tactic to let the clock run out till June and then claim there's nothing they can do. Maufas says it's just normal procedure.

In the lobby, buzzing with emotion after public comment, a JROTC cadet broke into tears: "That was so not five minutes!" A JROTC dad-turned-activist snapped at a Military Out of Our Schools activist making a beeline for the pizza ordered by Assemblywoman Ma: "That pizza is for the JROTC students!"

That's what all this is about, right — who cares more about the kids? Yet in what JROTC-supporting board member Jill Wynns calls "the most blatant example of politics that aren't really about students," the high schoolers have become pawns in a political showdown between two factions so polarized they each dismiss the other's arguments as lies.

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.)

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.

Chung says she has no interest in joining the military; instead, she'll be heading to UC Davis next fall to study pre-med.

But one former student wasn't as clear about what he wanted to do after high school, and was relieved that his JROTC instructors could help him get out of the military. Miles Stepto enlisted in the Marines after his junior year at Mission High without telling his JROTC instructors, since he figured they'd just tell him to go to college first, as they told everyone else. But as senior year rolled around, he stepped into the office of his instructor, a retired infantry first sergeant we'll call Sarge (who didn't want his name published because "I have to walk to the train station at night") to see how he could get out. Sarge called Stepto's recruiter, chewed him out for talking to Stepto behind his back, and demanded he let the teen out. "When a first sergeant calls, you either do it or you're dead," Sarge explains.

It must have worked. Last July, Stepto received a letter stating he had no more "contractual affiliation or obligation to any component of the United States Marine Corps." He was a free man.

Don't be fooled by such tales, opponents warn. JROTC creates a "brand loyalty" to the military among kids who otherwise wouldn't have thought of the armed services as an option. Even if they don't enlist right after graduation, once they hit a tough job market or find college classes harder than expected, they'll think back on the good times and constant promotions in JROTC, says Pablo Paredes of the American Friends Service Committee, who does counterrecruiting in schools.

"They're there to romanticize the military experience," he says. "When you've been in JROTC for four years, they speak this language to you, and it's less intimidating — the rank stuff ... the installation names, the job names — that becomes more friendly and familiar."

Samy Abdoun agrees, but he thinks being exposed to military values and discipline helped him. Abdoun says he entered Mission High in 2002 with a thirst for the armed services based on hours playing Call of Duty and Metal Gear videogames. He was placed in JROTC by his counselor (students must now proactively select the elective) and loathed it. He hated the uniform — "that tacky thing" — and regularly had to run laps or do push-ups for refusing to wear it. He hated his instructor, Michael Collier: While he says every other teacher just gave up and flunked him, he couldn't break Collier's pristine reserve. Abdoun even flipped him off once. No quiver of anger, just an order from Collier to sweep every JROTC room.

By sophomore year, Abdoun donned his uniform voluntarily and warmed up to Collier. By his junior year, Abdoun craved the even greater discipline he thought he'd find in the Army, and approached a visiting recruiter giving a presentation at the school. In his senior year, he enlisted to be an Arabic translator, against Collier's advice that he graduate first, planning to earn his GED while in the military.

Abdoun personifies the chicken-and-egg debate — does JROTC steer kids toward the military, or do kids who are already attracted to the military join JROTC? Some anecdotal, highly unscientific evidence to the latter: A junior at Balboa who said he was considering the military also had an N.R.A. patch sewn to his student sweater. Armando Frias, who reported to basic training after graduating from Galileo last year, said he'd believed since childhood that the Army pays to get you into shape and makes you a "superstar," and his four years in JROTC didn't challenge that belief. Lowell alumnus Daniel Le, who will graduate a second lieutenant from the United States Military Academy at West Point in May, said he'd always wanted to give back to the country that offered opportunities to his immigrant parents.

Citing sobering statistics on discrimination and combat injuries, what the JROTC opponents rarely say but often insinuate is that the military is an evil institution that only the brainwashed would sign up for. Abdoun says that's selling kids short: "I think it's wrong to say the military doesn't exist and we shouldn't even put Army posters up. If you want to put up a banking poster and a construction poster, that's fine. Give the kids the idea and let them choose their own career."

Some opponents say they're not against graduates joining the military — they just don't think the alleged recruiting should be happening in the public schools. Hit up the private schools, or start an after school program off-site, Sanchez says: "If this is a market-driven thing and the kids want it, and don't have to decide between that and French, then let them."

There are, of course, students whose experience in JROTC plays a part in persuading them to choose a military future. One Lowell student we'll call George (he didn't want his name published because of the school board controversy) says JROTC "definitely made me more open-minded" to a military career, mostly through the people he met. He talked to a former instructor at the school about his Army experience, and recalls being told something to the effect of, "'Basically, some days I think they cannot pay me enough to get out of bed, and other days when you're blowing shit up and stuff like that, it's like I can't believe they pay me to do this.' I pretty much agreed."

But what George says really sealed the deal was talking to another cadet: George was thinking of joining ROTC at college, from which you graduate a military officer, but a West Point–bound senior convinced him he'd have more control over the Army branch he was assigned to if he graduated from the academy instead. George will be the sixth student from Lowell to head to West Point in the last 12 years.

George isn't a guy who seems easily brainwashed. The 17-year-old has a 3.2 GPA in San Francisco's most rigorous public high school, he faces resistance from his parents who don't want him in the military, and he says he seriously reconsidered West Point after reading a scathing Web site review. But after weighing it all, George wants to give it a shot.

Bullard supports his decision, even if George's parents do not. On a recent Saturday afternoon, Bullard drove his student out to Travis Air Force Base to get the boots West Point cadets wear each day. George wants to break them in over the summer.

As this story goes to print, the JROTC teeters in limbo. Last week, Assemblywoman Ma's bill passed in the assembly's education committee, along with a related bill by Assemblywoman Mary Salas that would return PE credit to the program. Current school board members warn that the bill sets a dangerous precedent for the state to step on a local board's authority, but it has one potential fiscal benefit: The legislature's appropriations committee will mull whether the state would foot the bill for certain costs, since the program would be reinstated by state mandate.

Commissioner Norman Yee, meanwhile, has been considered a swing vote on the issue locally. He was one of only two commissioners voting to support JROTC in 2006, but also voted to take away the PE credit last summer. He says he remains consistent: "If nothing changes, I haven't changed my view." But the JROTC instructors are crossing their fingers. "It's San Francisco, and you never know until the last vote is passed," Balboa instructor Gerry Paratore says. "I've got to see him vote before I believe it."

If JROTC loses, what will take its place? The district is developing other leadership programs, such as four-year training for students to become first responders to earthquakes or natural disasters in conjunction with the city's Department of Emergency Management, yet only a nine-week pilot course would be available for just three or four schools next fall. Military critics say that kids will be initially resistant to any program that's not JROTC. "It's like shitty vending machines," counterrecruiter Paredes says. "It's not that they're good for you, but they'll still be pissed when they take them out."

JROTC instructors say the cut will hurt underprivileged students the hardest. Mission High's program exposes kids to things the instructors say most students' parents can't afford, such as the San Francisco Opera, horse-riding, or ice skating. Sarge says he often loans suits to the boys so they can attend the annual Battalion Ball at the Presidio. One cadet said that when her mom told her to get out of the house, she called Sarge to come pick her up; she now refers to him as "Dad."

Critics think creating role models with military trappings is dangerous. "I think it's entirely inappropriate to have someone in the military in front of such impressionable 14-year-olds," says ex-Commissioner Mark Sanchez, an eighth-grade teacher.

Then there's the threat that the district will lose more kids. Randy Laxa, a student at Burton High, says he would probably have transferred to a continuation high school if it weren't for drum corps practice, and without it next year, "I wouldn't really want to go to school at all anymore."

While still largely in denial, the instructors have faced the reality of having to find new jobs. Cadet Command will be starting 265 new JROTC programs nationwide over the next three years under this year's National Defense Authorization Act, and Bullard says he might apply to head up a program elsewhere. Yet in his office at Lowell, minutes before a student popped her head in to invite him to celebrate a cadet's birthday, he grew pensive. "If this program goes away, I'm gonna fall apart. These kids are the biggest part of my life."

The kids are holding out hope. In a conversation between two juniors at Balboa, it seems the JROTC debate had taught them less about democracy — they did get 55 percent of voters behind them, but not a change in policy — than politics.

"We're trying our best to stay on the good side of politicians," Tony Chen said.

"It's appeasement," Alvin Lam added.

"We're not breaking any rules right now — what do they want?" Chen said. "All I see is benefits" of JROTC. "I don't see any downsides." Then he remembered where he was, and smirked: "San Francisco is a liberal city, after all."

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