May 18-24, 2006
Cover StoryYoung Guns
The U.S. military gets old-school. In your kids' schools.
There were 32 members in her freshman JROTC class, "a time when they catch a lot of them," she says. Overall, 68 Roxborough High freshman joined JROTC that year; as seniors, 15 remain.
Having since dropped out of JROTC and opted out of sharing her personal contact information with military recruiters, all Williams gets for that one year in JROTC is unwanted attention. She's now learning that she traded in a salute for a senior year of solicitation.
"I have received phone calls, e-mail, three letters and a 15-minute videotape," she says. "I even received a phone call from a female recruiter asking if I was still interested in the Navy. I told her I wasn't and hung up. A week later, I received another letter and the tape. I threw them in the trash."
As the war in Iraq rages on and military recruiters scramble to fill thinning ranks, Philadelphia school district upperclassmen like Williams have increasingly been targeted as potential soldiers.
Though the district denies such a trendeven as a 2004 national survey ranked Philadelphia County as the nation's ninth biggest producer of black Army recruitslocal opponents of militarism say it's time they own up to reality.
Capt. Daniel R. Gager, U.S. Army commander of the South Philadelphia Recruiting Company, says an explicit verbal directive, which has since become part of a written plan, was sent from the U.S. Recruiting Command to all company commanders six months ago. It ordered them to increase the focus on high school upperclassmen.
In its own studies, the Army learned it wasn't securing a sufficient percentage of recruits as compared to the other armed services. Gager, who used to focus efforts on high school and college graduates, has been charged with recruiting "50 percent of all the high school students enlisting into the armed services."
Still, this is news to school district CEO Paul Vallas, who says, "I don't know anything about it."
For some, enlisting in the military is a viable option. For others, the recruiting war, which according to the White House Office of Management and Budget costs the Pentagon nearly $3 billion a year, is vicious.
In one camp, the school district doggedly maintains it's providing opportunities, not prepping cadets for combat. JROTC, it says, has "zero" to do with war, military training or recruiting. The district, he adds, doesn't allow weapon demonstration or training, and doesn't permit military recruiters in its military schools. He stresses the district has a Project Peace club in 60 elementary schools.
JROTC is a voluntary, credited course at schools like Roxborough. Students apply to Philadelphia Military Academy at Leeds School in Mt. Airy, a two-year school with 236 freshmen and sophomores, and to North Philly's first-year Philadelphia Military Academy at Elverson, which houses 106 freshmen. Attendance and test scores are on the uptick, district officials say, while disciplinary rates are decreasing.
However, militarism opponents like the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors (CCCO) and American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) say "boot-camp methodology" discourages critical thought, encourages blind inculcation and chases the economically disenfranchised, inner-city minorities with fewer options after high school. Military billboards sprout up in their neighborhoods with disproportionate frequency.
These foes maintain the district is playing into the military's hands.
Nationally, of the top 50 high schools ranked by black recruits, 47 have at least one JROTC program, according to the National Priorities Project (NPP), a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that examines the impact federal policies have on local communities. Though NPP ranked Philadelphia in the top 10 for black recruits with 107, it was 28th for overall recruits, with 247.
Lt. Col. Russell A. Gallagher, the district's JROTC director, doesn't entirely deny the demographic realities.
"JROTC gets into large cities that are cash-strapped because the people there are looking for programs that provide options," he says. "Is that "targeting'? No. Is it serving a population that needs it? Yes."
On its Web site, CCCO, which has an office at 1515 Cherry St., calls JROTC "too controversial, too likely to promote violence, too expensive, too controlled by Washington, too discriminatory and too much at odds with the goal of creating critically-thinking students in gun-free schools."
"JROTC is a program of the military, by the military, and for the military," they maintain. "Disguised as an education program, JROTC is a Trojan horse the military uses to gain access to schools and potential recruits."
Oskar Castro, coordinator of the National Youth and Militarism Program in AFSC's Philadelphia office, says city students, especially younger ones, are registered for JROTC against their will. Then they don't know how or when to drop the class.
Gallagher says JROTCs aren't supposed to be dumping grounds, and if a kid wants out, he can get out in any time period "within reason." He says situations are handled on a case-by-case basis. However, he admits, "After six months, if someone doesn't like it, there's nowhere else to go."
Castro maintains these "tricks and games" allow schools to maintain Pentagon-required JROTC enrollment (at least 10 percent of the host institution's population).
"It's an indoctrination tool," he says. "How can you have such an institutional bias operating in your schools? Young people are buying the dog-and-pony show, and getting into JROTC because it's "the American thing to do.' A community embraces it, too, if it "keeps kids off the streets.'"
Otherwise, Section 9528 of NCLB requires public high schools to release the information, or they'll lose federal funding. The little-known provision was slipped in long before anyone figured out what it meant. Now, without opting outand even if you do, according to somephones are still ringing off the hook with a telemarketer's temerity and a salesman's smothering.
Megan McDaniel, a Roxborough High senior who would like to be a preschool teacher, calls recruiters "annoying." One male recruiter offered to chauffeur her to his office.
"That was really kind of scary," she says. "The weird thing was that I not once said I wanted to join the military."
Recruiters endure a seven-week training program, but Gager says only 20 percent of those in his company who finish become successful. He's responsible for eight recruiting stations, including those in South Philly, West Philly, Center City and Upper Darby.
The most high school recruits he's had in any month in a year on the job was five. His quota for the following month was 75, even though the most he's had was 42.
"Even our veterans say combat is easier than recruiting," Gager says.
His biggest challenge is finding city kids who can pass the ASVAB, the military aptitude test. Gager says one in six city kids passyou need a score of 31 out of 99and if a student fails, he must wait 90 days to try again. Though the Army offers an online tutorialmarch2success.comGager says, "I've had kids take it three times and not pass."
Vallas, who spent 14 years in the reserves for the Illinois National Guard, says "hogwash" to militarism critics. He reaffirms a concerted plan that mirrors his reform of Chicago's schools before he came here. (Chicago Military Academy-Bronzeville, the nation's first public military school, graduated its first class in 2003.)
A moderate Democrat who once ran for governor of Illinois, Vallas doesn't hide his political persuasions.
"We're going to put [JROTC] in as many schools as want one and in as many as we can get one in," he says. "I'm against the war in Iraq, too, but don't take it out on JROTC programs. My goals are to graduate kids and get them into colleges, not get them into the military. I've increased the number of sports teams, too, so one could argue I'm prepping our kids for the NFL and NBA, too."
In the fall, pending a School Reform Commission vote, Washington High will begin an Air Force JROTC, and a third public military academy will open in the former St. Leo's, a Catholic school that closed last June in the city's Tacony neighborhood.
A typical JROTC program costs the school district of Philadelphia approximately $97,500, according to the district. That covers half the salaries of two teachers; the federal government picks up the other half.
JROTC "has to do with gang avoidance, leadership, citizen training and character development," says Gager, agreeing with Vallas that there's no direct connection to the military. "They hate [President George W.] Bush, they don't like war, and think we're putting people on planes to Iraq."
Born and raised in the city, Gallagher, 53, graduated from Olney, then Penn State. He flew helicopters for 21 years in the U.S. Army, then ran a JROTC at Roxborough from 1995 to 2002 before Vallas created his supervisory position. This year, he has overseen 2,500 students in 17 programs. By contrast, Chicago has 43 high school JROTCs and nearly 10,000 cadets.
At both Philly military academies, JROTC is an all-day, every-day commitment. Cadets dress in full uniform. Three days a week, they have classes. One day is for leadership training. Friday is for physical training. At Roxborough or Frankford, JROTC is one period a day. Students dress in uniform once a week.
And not every student finds it annoying like Williams and McDaniel do.
Then, after transferring to Frankford in October of his junior year, JROTC "transformed" him. His older brother Chris spent three JROTC years there. Now, when Eric, an All-Public League linebacker, graduates, he'll be second in command of his school's U.S. Army battalion.
"I remember saying to myself, "I need a different path,'" Hairston recalls. "Because of JROTC, I'm more disciplined. I've got my respect up."
For next year, there were 2,000 military school applicants for 375 lottery-selected slots (125 new freshmen for each of three schools), according to Vallas. Very few of the interested families, Gallagher says, are interested in joining the military. Most simply want a safe, challenging, structured environment.
That's what Jonathan Tomlin, a freshman class platoon sergeant at Leeds, sought a year ago. He was the only cadet from Greenberg, his K-8 school in the Northeast.
"It's totally not about discipline," he says. "It's about preparation for college and leadership preparation and training. It's about academicsand if you're not getting good grades, they want you out. A "C' is like a "F.'"
Every military prep student has a two-week summer training program, but Tomlin, 15, says it wasn't like boot camp at all.
"They made us do push-ups, but that's a given," he says. "They taught us how to march and get into formations."
But that's not for everyone. Neither is military recruiting.
Gallagher, who also coordinates the district's opt-out effort, which was deemed "honor roll" worthy on www.leavemychildalone.org, says the number of district students who opted out increased from about 3,000 to 4,000 this year. (Vallas says that's 20 percent of the district's upperclassmen.) If a recruiter wants a copy of the "can-contact" list, he must request it from Gallagher, who doesn't automatically distribute it.
Part of coordinating is keeping recruiters in line, particularly when they become "uppity or snotty," he says. "I tell them to wise up! At times, I've asked them to go back and apologize [to students]."
Last September, the district mailed an opt-out form home to juniors and seniors and waited three weeks for a response. A lack of response is considered a non-objection, but those who opt out are flagged and put on the equivalent of a no-call list.
The "can-contact" list was available by the end of October, but by then recruiters were already dialing phone numbers from the previous year's list, Gager says. A second-chance opt-out letter will be sent out by the end of the month.
In a choreographed change, next year students will be able to opt out as early as freshman orientation, Vallas says. He denies he's been pressured, but says he wants to improve and increase communication with parents on the issue.
But the opt-out form Roxborough's Denisha Williams signed "was a waste of my time," she says. "They take that as a way to keep contacting you in hopes you'll change your mind."
Gager has heard the complaints and concludes there are three reasons recruiters contact opt-out households. Some districts are slower to produce updated no-call lists each year, so recruiters use junior-year lists, which may include current seniors who just opted out. (This, even though the district says it's understanding is that a decision to opt out is good until graduation unless otherwise changed.)
Secondly, there's no national "do not call" database, so the armed forces do not share information. That means a student may receive multiple calls from different branches. Finally, students and parents do not communicate; students request information without telling their parents, and parents opt out on their children's behalf without discussing it.
"I would reprimand any recruiter that intentionally called someone who asked not to be called," Gager says. "The problem is that we're just one service and most people think of us as the "complete military' when they're talking to [any one of] us.
"If we have the number, that usually means the Marine Corps, Air Force and Navy has the numberas well as all of the reserves and the National Guard in both New Jersey and Pennsylvania. This means someone could get called as many as 10 times."
Walter DeShields, coordinator for the Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR-UP) at William Penn High, a non-JROTC school, says recruiters average five or six visits a year. Gager says that provides a chance "to tell the Army story." Recruiters also schedule individual appointments by request. Students, DeShields says, are noticeably less interested in the military this year, his second since returning to work at his alma mater.
"More and more kids are getting the chills," he says. "They're saying, "Can't you just tell him I'm not here today?' or, "Why don't they just leave me alone?' I've definitely had some long, anxious conversations about it."
Both Philly academies are 72 percent black and 14 (Leeds) to 22 (Elverson) percent Latino, according to district figures.
"It's a great disparity," DeShields says. "It's like we're being used."
Wes Enzinna, a 2005 Temple University history grad, titled his senior honors thesis "Discipline, Contradiction, and the Mis-Education of Philadelphia: The African and African-American Curriculum in Philadelphia High Schools and the Challenge of Junior ROTC, 1967-2005."
"The first thing one notices is that these programs target poor youth of color despite their claims to the contrary," he says from South America, where he's working as a social activist in Argentina and Bolivia. "If this is such a great educational opportunity, why aren't wealthy schools even considered for the program?"
While JROTCs existed in the city in the 1960s, Enzinna concluded from what limited documentary evidence exists that they were mostly in "white" schools, not predominantly black schools plagued by "frequent and dramatic disturbances" and interracial violence.
Today, "JROTC is marketed as a [discipline] solution in these schools," says Enzinna, who visited four Philly JROTC schools while researching. "Because JROTC is predicated on, as well as reproduces, such a negative image of African-Americans, it stands in direct opposition to the development of a positive African-American self-identity. It's a perturbing hypocrisy."
Enzinna says while researching at one site he wouldn't name, he witnessed "what discipline means for your average ninth-grader."
"At all times in this school there is a "security' patrol of three enormous men, roving the school looking for students who cause trouble," he says. "The men grabbed a student who had cut class and started questioning him. When the student gave them attitude, one of the security guards grabbed the student, threw him into a corner and held him there. His head was pushed into the wall. "You wanna fuck with me?' the security guard said. "You want to fuck with me you little pussy? You probably don't even have any hair on your balls. I'll fuck you up so fast, you won't even know what happened.'"
JROTC supporters argue that the program is not designed to recruit students into the military, but according to research by Catherine Lutz, author of Homefront: A Military City and the American 20th Century, about 40 percent of JROTC graduates say they plan to enter the armed forces or reserves.
Frankford's Hairston is one student headed the military's wayand if there were more like him, recruiters wouldn't have to push everyone else so hard. "I want to live a military life," he says pointedly.
He'll take a football scholarship at La Salle University, play two years, then transfer to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point or the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis.
He wanted to attend West Point right away, but when he scored 980 on the SAT, admissions told him he'd need to score 1,000. He thought about a two-year scholarship offer from Valley Forge Military College, then La Salle came knocking. Hairston has also signed up for the Army National Guard, which will earn him $10,000 more for his education. Outside school, rather than looking for trouble, he's also a first sergeant in the Civil Air Patrol, which performs U.S. Air Force-directed search and rescue missions.
"Friends from Mastbaum say I've completely changed," Hairston says. "They say I was a "bad boy' there, but [at Frankford], they say I'm the man. Over here, I'm a soldier with a real future. I'm on the way to protecting our country. [At Mastbaum], I was saying, "Screw my country.'"
He's a kid who found the military, but it seems the military is increasingly intent on finding its way to more kids.
"I was only in JROTC for one year, and in that one year I only went to class when I felt like it," Roxborough's Williams says. "After seeing my stats in class and looking at the time period I stayed in JROTC, they should have known I wasn't into it. The way the war is today, no wonder they're having a hard time recruiting people."