The Children's Crusade
Military programs move into middle
schools to fish for future soldiers
by Jennifer Wedekind
In These Times magazine, June
Tarsha Moore stands as tall as her 4-foot
8-inch frame will allow. Staring straight ahead, she yells out
an order to a squad of peers lined up in three perfect columns
next to her. Having been in the military program for six years,
Tarsha has earned the rank of captain and is in charge of the
28 boys and girls in her squad. This is Lavizzo Elementary School.
Tarsha is 14.
The Middle School Cadet Corps (MSCC) program
at the K-8 school is part of a growing trend to militarize middle
schools. Students at Lavizzo are among the more than 850 Chicago
students who have enlisted in one of the city's 26 MSCC programs.
At Madero Middle School, the MSCC has evolved into a full-time
military academy for kids ii to 14 years old.
Chicago public schools are home to the
largest junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps (JROTC) program,
which oversees the MSCC, in the country.
When moving up to high school, Chicago's
graduating eighth-graders can choose from 45 JROTC programs, including
three full-time Army military academies, five "school-within-a-school"
Army JROTC academies and one JROTC Naval academy.
Proponents of the programs tout leadership
training and character development. But critics quote former Defense
Secretary Gen. William Cohen, who described JROTC as "one
of the best recruiting services that we could have. Rick Mills,
the director of Military Schools and JROTC for the Chicago Public
School system, dismisses these concerns. "These kinds of
programs would not be in schools if there weren't kids who wanted
it, parents who supported it and administrators who facilitated
it' he says.
The elementary school cadet corps is a
voluntary after-school program that meets two or three times a
week. Programs differ from school to school, but MSCC students
generally learn first-aid, civics, "citizenship" and
character development. They also learn military history and take
field trips to local military bases. Once a week, students wear
their uniforms to school for inspections. Tarsha describes buffing
her uniform shoes in preparation for inspection days. "Everything
has to be perfect' she says. During drill practices they learn
how to stand, turn and salute in synchronization. When they disobey
an order, they do pushups. "Only lo:' says one administrator.
Joanne Young, a six-grade teacher at Goethe
School in Chico, recently wrote a letter to the local school council
protesting the implementation of the cadet corps in her school.
"I was told that it is not a military program, yet every
aspect of it is military' she wrote. "This program is training
our students, as young as 11-years old, to march in formation
and carry guns. Students could be suspended for bringing something
that appears to be a weapon to our school, yet we are handing
them fake guns for this program" Young, like many other teachers,
feels that leadership and discipline could easily be taught in
other types of after-school programs.
Herman Barnett, director of Lavizzo's
award-winning MSCC program, asks the public to give the students
the benefit of the doubt. "They don't look at it as getting
ready for the army:' he says. "They're just doing it for
entertainment and fun:'
In 2002 the Bush administration passed
the No Child Left Behind Act with a small, unpublicized provision:
Section 9528, "Armed Forces Recruiter Access to Students
and Student Recruiting Information:' requires high schools to
give all student contact information to the military. Most students
aren't aware they can opt out by filling out a form.
Ranjit Bhagwat, an organizer for Chicago's
Southwest Youth Collaborative, has worked with students at Kelly
High School in Chicago to inform their classmates about the provision
and how to opt out. The Kelly group, founded in January, has already
convinced more than 10 percent of the school's population to sign
the opt-out petition. Bhagwat says the group targeted military
recruitment because the students felt the military's presence
in their school was an issue that needed to be addressed. "They
had a problem with the fact that there were a lot of lies the
military told:' he says.
The MSCC and JROTC programs are funded
by the Defense Department, which has a $3 billion annual recruitment
budget. Recruitment officers roam high schools promoting the image
of a secure military career and enticing students with promises
of money for college.
The "lies" mentioned by Bhagwat
include the reality that, on average, two-thirds of recruits never
receive college funding and only 15 percent graduate with a four-year
degree. As for a "secure" career, the unemployment rate
for veterans is three times higher than non-veterans.
Opponents of the JROTC program also cite
ethnic profiling, arguing that the military targets students from
minority and low-income areas. The Chicago Public School system
is 49.8 percent African American and 38 percent Latino. Students
coming from low-income families make up 85.2 percent of Chicago's
student population. JROTC director Mills is correct when h says
the racial and socioeconomic status of those in Chicago's JROTC
program reflects the school system as a whole, but only five schools
in all of the more affluent Chicago suburbs have JROTC programs.
Military recruiters are known for their
flashy tactics: television ads, omnipresent brochures, recruiting
ships, trucks and vans, and even a free Army video game kids can
download off the Internet. Yet, the Army hasn't met its recruitment
goals in three months. The Marines haven't met their quotas since
January. Suspicious recruitment tactics are in the headlines and
Army recruiters took off May 20 to retrain in the ethics and laws
Meanwhile, Mills insists the military
does not look to JROTC groups for students to boost its numbers.
"I get absolutely no pressure from any of the services:'
he says. "None:'
Only 18 percent of graduating JROTC seniors
are considering joining the service, says Mills. He does not have
statistics on how many of the 71 percent that go on to post-secondary
school stay with the ROTC program. Lavizzo's Barnett also says
that not all of his middle school students move on to JROTC programs
in high school. Tarsha, however, has already signed up. While
she wants to be a lawyer and is not planning on joining the armed
forces when she graduates, the 14-year-old says, "If I were
to join the military, I would be ready for it."
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