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Activists in Calif. school district crusading against junior ROTC

Second Lieutenant Jennifer Gonzalez is one of the JROTC students at Roosevelt High School in Los Angeles. Second Lieutenant Jennifer Gonzalez is one of the JROTC students at Roosevelt High School in Los Angeles. (Spencer Weiner/Los Angeles Times)

LOS ANGELES -- First Sergeant Otto Harrington -- tall, muscular, his head clean-shaven -- has soldiered through battles in Bosnia, Kuwait, and Somalia. He has patrolled Korea's Demilitarized Zone.

None of that prepared him, though, for the attacks he has faced as senior teacher in the Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps at Roosevelt High School in the Boyle Heights section of Los Angeles, where students and teachers have launched a crusade against military recruiting and JROTC.

Harrington says their campaign has cut the number of cadets at Roosevelt by 43 percent in four years, from 286 to 162. Some teachers urge students not to sign up for JROTC, he said.

"They seem to think I'm some evil, horrible soldier down here trying to sacrifice our kids to Iraq," Harrington said in describing the increasing campus tensions.

The program's critics see JROTC as a Trojan horse targeting students in low-income minority schools with high dropout rates. "We are a juicy target," said Roosevelt social studies teacher Jorge Lopez.

At Roosevelt and other schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the movement against the JROTC has helped drive a 24 percent drop in enrollment since 2003-04, Harrington and his critics said. The decline runs counter to enrollment nationwide, which grew 8 percent to 486,594 cadets between 2001 and 2006, fueled by a 57 percent jump in federal funding, according to the Department of Defense.

Roosevelt's "Rough Rider Battalion" was once among the JROTC's finest, a powerhouse that routinely bested rivals in citywide competitions. In 1990, when the program had 400 cadets, the battalion's girls' drill team won the national championship.

JROTC students have uniforms and attend one cadet class each day, learning skills that include financial planning, map reading, and how to give a PowerPoint presentation.

The Department of Defense-sponsored program, which is in 30 of LA Unified's 61 high schools, also includes physical education, target practice, and marching drills. JROTC participants have no obligation to join the military, but students who complete the program are entitled to higher starting pay if they enlist.

Jesse Flores, an 11th-grader at Roosevelt, said that as recently as his freshman year, students didn't think less of classmates for being in JROTC; some stopped cadets to admire ribbons and medals pinned to their uniforms. "Now," Flores said, "everyone says JROTC is bad."

Many teachers are openly hostile toward JROTC, Flores said.

Arlene Inouye, a speech therapist formerly at Roosevelt, said she thinks antimilitary advocacy by teachers is a counterbalance to a strong military presence on campus. She said she once counted 14 recruiters approaching crowds of students in Roosevelt's quad, handing out "Join the Army" book covers and promising adventure, travel, and money for college.

In 2003, concerned that students weren't hearing the other side, she founded the Coalition Against Militarism in Our Schools. The group has spread to 50 Los Angeles-area schools, providing member teachers with literature, speakers, films, and books.

Their efforts are possible in part because of a 1986 ruling from the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit that requires public schools that allow recruiters on campus to give counter-recruiters a shot at addressing students.

At Roosevelt, the coalition teamed with United Students, a group of students and teachers working to improve education.

United Students' 100 Roosevelt members began keeping track of when military recruiters were scheduled to visit so they could conduct counter-recruiting.

Lopez, the social studies teacher, keeps a stack of glossy brochures propped on his chalkboard titled "Don't Die in a Dead-End Job! Information for Young People Considering the Military" that show a soldier saluting flag-draped coffins. Prominent on his wall is a poster called "Ten Points to Consider Before You Sign a Military Enlistment Agreement."

"I want to see more Latinos go to college," Lopez said.

The warren of six JROTC rooms at Roosevelt is decorated with drawings of tanks. On the front wall of Harrington's classroom is a row of brown- and gold-framed photographs of the chain of command, from President Bush to the secretary of defense to JROTC instructors.

At lunch, cadets stream in, grab unloaded Springfield rifles from four gun racks, and practice spinning them. The four people in the color guard, wearing white gloves and chrome helmets, maneuver their rifles in unison.

Gillian Russom, a teacher, said that training instills the wrong values: following orders, dressing the same, and relying on rote memorization rather than critical thinking. "That's necessary for a successful military, but does it create the kind of citizens we want?"

A 1999 Center for Strategic and International Studies report, the last comprehensive assessment of JROTC, found that about 40 percent of students who graduated from high school with two or more years of JROTC ended up in the military.

Harrington said few of his Roosevelt students join the armed services. Only 5 percent of his cadets would qualify to enlist, he said, because the rest are in the country illegally, couldn't pass the military aptitude test, are in trouble with the law, or are overweight.

"This is the worst school on the planet for a recruiter to come and think they will be successful," he said, adding that only three Roosevelt cadets in three years have enlisted out of high school.

Still, many Roosevelt students and teachers are angered that JROTC programs are concentrated in low-income, primarily minority communities.