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From Draft NOtices, October-December 2012

The Militarization of High School Students and JROTC in Southern California

– Davíd Morales

[Note: This article is a condensation of an academic research paper. The names of the district, schools, communities, and interview subjects used in this study have been changed in order to preserve their privacy.]

In recent years, JROTC, or the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, has reached an advanced level of proliferation throughout public high schools in the United States. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the Pentagon’s failure to meet its recruitment quotas in the past have led to an increase in the number of JROTC units across the country. This expansion has been significant in urban, inner-city, and low-income schools. The military science course offered as an elective, or sometimes in lieu of physical education, in public high schools has proven to be an efficient recruiting tool. Although the Department of Defense (DoD) and school districts across the country state otherwise, it has been documented that over 40 percent of students who go through the JROTC program enlist in the military at some point in their lives.

The educational system in the U.S. finds itself in a critical condition — historically disenfranchised students are more underserved than ever before. Many underrepresented students of color and working-class students in urban environments lack equitable educational opportunities at their schools and, as a result, are pushed into the military. This study investigated how students at three high schools in a large and diverse district in southern California are tracked into the JROTC program.

It is primarily students of color and working-class students who are being misled into taking JROTC, and, in some cases, even placed in JROTC involuntarily. There are significant differences among the three JROTC programs in this study. Units in schools that are predominantly affluent and white offer more educational opportunities when compared to units in less affluent and more diverse communities. Tracking working-class students and students of color into JROTC can have significant impact on their high school careers and long-lasting effects on their post-high school plans. Furthermore, when there is a disproportionately high number of Latina/os, blacks, and other minorities in the military, combined with under-representation of these students in institutions of higher education, there can be serious implications for the future of the country. The U.S. must cultivate a diverse generation of citizens prepared to address the needs of a rapidly changing society and willing to serve as agents for the betterment of all communities.

Sites and Participants

The school district in this study currently hosts 13 JROTC units representing all four branches of the military. Southern Unified School District (SUSD) is one of the largest in the state of California. The city in which SUSD is located has a high military presence. Its proximity to the U.S.-Mexico border accounts for its large population of Latina/o students, primarily of Mexican descent. The three schools on which this study focuses are Central Union High School, Pine Grove High School, and Cabrillo Hills High School. Each hosts a JROTC unit. These schools were chosen on the basis of their very different characteristics in terms of student composition, area of location, etc. Also, each of these schools has a different branch of the military represented in their JROTC program.

Central Union High School is an urban inner-city school located in a densely populated area. Central Union is separated into six smaller schools, each with a specific focus. I examined the Leadership Academy due to its ties to the JROTC program; although JROTC at Central Union is open to all six schools, most students who are enrolled in JROTC are from the Leadership Academy. The two main student groups that comprise the Leadership Academy are Latina/o and African American; all students are socio-economically disadvantaged.

Pine Grove High School is located in a northern suburb of the city. Approximately 71 percent of the community population is white, followed by 15 percent Asian. Pine Grove serves nearly 2,000 students; while most of them come from the surrounding community, a good number of them are bussed in from other communities due to diversity enhancement initiatives taken by the district. Of the students who attend Pine Grove, 22.4 percent are considered socio-economically disadvantaged.

Cabrillo Hills High School is located in a coastal suburban neighborhood that is predominantly white and has a high military presence due to an adjacent naval base. It holds a strong academic reputation in low-income and communities of color. For this reason, nearly 50 percent of the students that attend Cabrillo Hills are of Mexican descent and are bussed in from other communities. The other 50 percent is from the surrounding suburban neighborhood. In this student population, 44.1 percent are considered socio-economically disadvantaged.

Characteristics of JROTC Units

The most notable difference among JROTC units in the Leadership Academy, Pine Grove, and Cabrillo Hills is the military branch that each hosts. The Leadership Academy (and Central Union in its entirety) hosts an Army JROTC (AJROTC) unit. Pine Grove hosts the Air Force (AFJROTC), and Cabrillo Hills, the Navy (NJROTC). During interviews, students from the Leadership Academy were asked about the activities in which they engaged in AJROTC. Carlos, a 10th grade student who took AJROTC during the previous year, states:

 [JROTC] teaches you how to be fit, how to be in the Army, how to wear a uniform correctly, how to fold the flag . . . I think it teaches you how to be respectful to your superiors, like, how to be a follower and more obedient, pretty much.

Carlos also recalls having to be groomed at all times, as if he were in the Army. In a group interview with Angelina (10th grade), Guadalupe (10th grade), and Jackie (11th grade), all three students claim to engage in physical activities during JROTC class.

In contrast to Central Union’s AJROTC unit website, Pine Grove’s AFJROTC unit website contains documents directed towards the parents of the cadets — stressing, for example, the importance of grades and academic performance. The course syllabus and general school catalog of courses are also found on the website. When describing the content of the program, the catalog reflects emphasis on the history of aviation and other academic subjects. During an interview, Pine Grove alumna Briana stated that AFJROTC was mainly based on academics. Briana took AFJROTC her first year in high school. However, she mentions that the program had an authoritarian structure despite its academic focus: “I didn’t like that you always had to go by the book. You were always told what to do and you couldn’t really make your decision in anything.”

Cabrillo Hills NJROTC unit offers links to SAT preparation courses and other academic websites. A copy of the syllabus is also found on the website. According to the syllabus, only 25 percent of the class grade depends upon academics. The remaining 75 percent depends upon personal training performance, personal inspection (uniforms), marching, and demonstration of leadership.

The findings of this study hold many serious implications for historically disenfranchised youth. First, the differences in the military branches represented at each school mark a clear distinction in the military occupational paths students are steered toward. AFJROTC, exemplified at Pine Grove, has a greater academic focus compared to its Army, Navy, and Marine Corps counterparts. The AJROTC unit at Central Union conducts more physical and “military-style” classes with very minimal academic emphasis, as does the NJROTC at Cabrillo Hills. According to the syllabi found for Pine Grove’s AFJROTC, topics covered in the course are devoted to areas of science and the higher technological fields that are more prevalent in the Air Force. As a result, AFJROTC, in this southern California city and across the nation, specifically excludes marksmanship training, whereas Army, Navy, and Marine Corps JROTC allow it as an option for the school. This means the latter three lean more toward combat arms specialties rather than more technical non-combat specialties. In other words, occupations in the Army, Navy and Marines are potentially more dangerous than those of the Air Force.

Another relevant fact is that in SUSD, the only two schools that have an Air Force JROTC unit are schools in relatively affluent communities with median household incomes well above the city average. This implies that students who take JROTC in low-income community schools do not receive the academic component offered by AFJROTC, and instead are subjected to preparation for combat arms specialties.

Despite variations in academic emphasis, I find that all three units employ an authoritarian pedagogy that inculcates obedience and respect for authority in students. Students in JROTC are not engaged in effective educational practices that encourage them to inquire or develop critical thinking skills.

How Students of Color Are Tracked Into JROTC

Different practices are employed across schools when enrolling students in JROTC. Participants surveyed at Central Union High School reported that all students in the Leadership Academy are placed in AJROTC in their first year. When asked about how she had heard about JROTC, Angelina reports, “I heard about [JROTC] in my freshmen year; I was just placed in there the first day of school.” Her peers reported similar experiences. JROTC enrollment practices in Pine Grove and Cabrillo Hills appear to be different. Briana comments that at Pine Grove students are not placed in AFJROTC involuntarily. Instead, she states, “Certain students are encouraged to take JROTC; they are convinced when they are told that they won’t have to take P.E.” Marcos, an alumnus from Cabrillo Hills High School, reports a similar experience: “When I went in to speak to a counselor they tried to put me in [JROTC]. It was when I was picking my classes [for] my freshman year. [The counselor] said, ‘Oh, it counts for P.E., it counts for two credits.’” No incidence of involuntarily enrollment was found for Pine Grove or Cabrillo Hills.

According to student testimonies, JROTC units at Central Union, Pine Grove, and Cabrillo Hills are all predominantly comprised of students of color and low-income, working-class students. Jackie, an 11th grade student from the Leadership Academy reports, “They were all Latinos. In my class all of them were Latinos.” Briana, the Pine Grove alumna, shares a similar view: “There was a bunch of Asians in JROTC! There were a lot of whites, too.” Marcos explains that at Cabrillo Hills, students in JROTC were mostly Latinos.

Whether it is at Central Union, Cabrillo Hills, or the more affluent Pine Grove, students who are tracked into JROTC are predominantly students of color and low-income working class students. In Pine Grove, it is both Asian and white students who comprise the Air Force JROTC program; this might be because Asians there are the largest group of students of color, and whites account for approximately 46 percent of the overall student population. Students in Cabrillo Hills’ Navy JROTC are primarily Latina/o. Approximately half of the student population that attends Cabrillo Hills is Latina/o and of Mexican descent. These same students who attend Cabrillo Hills, seeking better academic opportunities than those found in their communities, might very well be the ones tracked into JROTC.

Finally, the main concern of this project is the issue of how students are tracked into JROTC. This study reveals that students in the Leadership Academy of Central Union High School are placed in JROTC involuntarily — without their own or their parents’ consultation. The Department of Defense requires that JROTC units maintain a minimum of 100 students in the program, or 10 percent of the total student population of the respective school. Such actions taken by the Leadership Academy can be interpreted as a desperate effort to maintain this minimum quota and prevent disestablishment of the AJROTC program. Pine Grove and Cabrillo Hills did not indicate any record of involuntary enrollment in JROTC in this study.


It is clear that low-income, working-class students and students of color are denied equitable educational opportunities when pushed into JROTC. What is also evident is that the JROTC unit in the more affluent school and community has a greater emphasis on academics when compared to programs in less affluent areas that are primarily composed of students of color and working-class students. I argue that the educational system in this city, located in southern California, is reflective of the educational system of the United States. Something must be done to remedy the educational system and the excessive militarization of working class communities and communities of color. All youth, regardless of class or ethnicity/race, must have equitable educational opportunities that prepare them for the future of this country.


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This article is from Draft NOtices, the newsletter of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (


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