On a Wednesday afternoon last month, a group of gray-haired women with canes and Styrofoam guns lined the streets outside the New York City Department of Education’s headquarters in Brooklyn. “Get the military out of our schools!” they shouted, capturing pedestrians’ attention. “No more JROTC!” These were the courageous women of the Granny Peace Brigade, and they were there to protest what they see as the militarization of the city’s public schools.
In his proposed budget for the next fiscal year, Mayor Bill de Blasio allocates some $1.6 million to fund Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps programs in high schools across the city. Under the program, schools pay retired veterans to teach a military-oriented curriculum approved by the Department of Defense (DOD). If a student decides to enroll, the JROTC class fills a period just like any other; it is incorporated into her daily schedule, and the student receives credit upon successful completion. Instruction may vary by school, but activities often include inspections, physical exercises, discussion of military-approved textbooks, exams, and lessons prepared by the instructor. Some programs may also require students to dedicate their after-school hours to practice marching and shooting—activities that often occur on the school’s grounds.
Nationwide, the costs of JROTC are even more startling. A 2004 study by the American Friends Service Committee found that schools across the United States were spending $222 million annually on JROTC instructor salaries alone. The DOD funds the rest of the program’s expenses: In 2013, that amounted to another $365 million.
Ever since the elimination of the draft in 1973, the presence of military recruiters and JROTC programs has increased in high schools all across the United States. Because the government could no longer compel service, it became necessary to find other ways to persuade young men and women to sign up. And what more opportune place to influence kids than in schools? In 1970, 54 years after the program’s inception under the administration of President Woodrow Wilson, the Army had 585 units operating nationwide. Now there are over 1,700 chapters of the Army’s JROTC branch established in schools across the country—and about the same number operated by other branches of the military. This escalation of the program was necessary for the military “to ensure they can continue recruiting some 200,000 new members that need to be added every year,” says Seth Kershner, a researcher who writes about the counter-recruitment movement. “It’s a huge undertaking.”
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In addition to JROTC programs, the military has also become more aggressive in recruiting youth to join the military outright. As part of 2001’s No Child Left Behind Act, public schools were required to give the military the same access to students afforded to college recruiters. They were also strongly encouraged to give the military access to students’ personal contact information upon request. Schools that failed to comply would risk losing federal funds.