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JROTC: Sending the Wrong Message about Weapons and Violence

(from the December 2000/January 2001
issue of Y&M Magazine)

On average, 13 US children are killed each day by firearms. Many school districts have developed anti-violence and anti-weapons policies and programs in recent years to try to counter the epidemic of violence affecting young people.

"Zero-tolerance" policies are perhaps the most prevalent examples of school anti-violence policies. Many of them stem from the federal Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994. Under this act, in order to receive federal funding for education, states must have laws that expel for at least one year any student who brings a firearm to school (although local educational bodies can modify this on a case-to-case basis). The act also requires that schools refer these students to the criminal or juvenile justice system.

Many legislatures, schools, or districts have added other types of weapons or replicas of weapons to their policies. They have imposed harsh consequences – such as suspension or expulsion – for even one instance of weapon possession. The no-weapons policies – found in 92% of US public high schools – are meant to convey an unambiguous message that violence and weapons have no place in schools and will not be tolerated.

At the same time, schools and communities are implementing preventive programs which strive to involve the whole school community in identifying solutions to school violence, to teach social skills to help resolve conflicts nonviolently, and to educate young people about the tremendous cost of gun and other violence.

But thousands of schools have a different program. Across the country some schools have turned to the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) program because it claims to improve the school climate and strengthen discipline. This claim has never been substantiated. Furthermore, JROTC runs directly counter to the intent of anti-weapons and anti-violence initiatives and laws. It undermines efforts to demonstrate that violence and weapons have no place in schools.

1. JROTC teaches marksmanship

Many JROTC programs have a marksmanship component as part of their for-credit classes. Students who sign up are taught how to use guns in firing ranges. Schools provide facilities that support these programs, such as rifle ranges and storage cabinets for the JROTC unit’s arsenal of guns. The military argues that no "weapons" are used in the JROTC program because the rifles (air rifles and older military rifles that have been retired from normal use) – at least some of them – don’t use "live ammunition." But rifles are rifles. With gun-related violence so prevalent today, this training with guns in schools or sponsored by schools can potentially desensitize people to the consequences of the use of firearms. It creates a double standard when JROTC students are allowed or even encouraged to have weapons at school.

2. Students carry weapons or facsimiles in JROTC drills

Both real and dummy firearms, as well as sabers, are used in JROTC drill and Color Guard activities. In the case of sabers, JROTC commanders have acknowledged that they are potentially dangerous, but argue that there are strict training requirements and instructors closely supervise their use. Yet if non-JROTC students were caught with a saber, a rifle, or even a toy gun, they would be subject to expulsion and arrest in many of these same schools. The use of these weapons – even dummy weapons – sends mixed messages, especially when linked with symbols like the US flag.

3. JROTC textbooks show weapons and how to use them

Even where there is no marksmanship training program, many students receive JROTC textbooks containing sections instructing them on weapons or how to shoot. For example:

  • The second-year Army text has 32 pages on marksmanship and states that participation in competitive shooting will result in "the building of self-discipline and self-confidence, contribution of individual skills to a team effort, and the development of skills that can be used for a lifetime."

  • The Navy JROTC’s second-year text devotes 45 pages to introducing the reader through text, diagrams, and pictures to naval weapons, such as guns, mines, missiles, and biological and nuclear weapons.

4. Students are taught that conflicts can be resolved by the use of force

JROTC texts consistently emphasize that violence is an effective means of settling conflicts on a world scale. A study by two researchers from the University of North Carolina (Making Soldiers in the Public Schools) found that in contrast to standard high school textbooks, the JROTC curriculum "celebrates or uncritically accepts the military’s role in all circumstances." Although the JROTC texts contain sections on US history, including the history of US wars, they trivialize the human costs and other consequences of war.

5. JROTC has collaborated with the pro-gun National Rifle Association (NRA)

For instance, Army JROTC has had a partnership with the NRA to sponsor marksmanship matches; the second-year Army text’s chapter on competitive shooting includes information on NRA competitions and suggests that students may want to get involved. NRA "Youth Programs" materials encourage JROTC units to utilize and participate in NRA resources, programs, and training and to join the NRA Youth Club network.

Additionally, JROTC texts continue to downplay the widespread public appeal and action for gun control. Instead, one text introduces an NRA slogan without citing the source: "A popular argument is, ‘If guns were outlawed, only outlaws would have guns.’" (Army LET 2:193). JROTC’s message to students is that gun ownership and recreational gun use are okay.

A Growing Concern

In recent years, the JROTC program’s connection with weapons has come under criticism from educators and students alike. As a result, some changes have been made at both local and national levels to the program.

A growing number of local school districts, recognizing the dangers of having school-sponsored riflery programs and their inconsistencies with school policies, are adopting policies banning this training. For example, in November 1999 the Chicago public school system decided to drop marksmanship (which included training and competitions) from its JROTC programs. At the time riflery was taught in 33 of the city’s 41 high schools with JROTC programs. In other places, shooting ranges have been taken off campus.

At the national level, revisions to some texts have removed certain sections dealing with weapons. For instance, the text for the first-year Army JROTC course, which is far and away the most heavily enrolled of all JROTC classes, removed its section on drilling with guns and its 45-page section on marksmanship. The latter included drawings of various rifles and subheadings like "Correct Aiming," "Proper Breath Control and Trigger Squeeze," and "It’s Time to Shoot." In another case, an Air Force text which presented a biased view of gun control is no longer used. The text read, "Modern advocates of gun control, registration, and the banning of gun ownership should at least be aware that their efforts, well intentioned as they may be, are probably unconstitutional." (Air Force JROTC, Careers in Aerospace: 76). This removal of pages does not mean that marksmanship training has been eliminated from all JROTC programs or that JROTC does not present an imbalanced view of the gun control issue.

Policies at the national level also reflect some of these concerns. An explicit reference to collaboration with the NRA has been removed from Army regulations: in the past, training materials for JROTC teachers instructed them to encourage cadets to join the National Rifle Association (Army regulation 145-2, Appendix P). For some time, the Air Force has recognized problems inherent with weapons training in JROTC programs and has no marksmanship programs: "The possibility of accidents, theft, or seizure of firearms overrides any potential gain from their use by AFJROTC cadets" (AFROTCR 53-1).

But these changes are not enough: JROTC still sends the wrong messages about the use of violence and weapons.

A different approach is needed for preventing school violence

Schools need effective violence prevention and conflict resolution programs. This is not the business of the military.

  • Schools could be educating about the consequences of gun violence, instead of teaching students "weapons safety."

  • Schools could be helping kids learn to be peacemakers, teaching mediation skills like empathy and how to de-escalate conflicts, instead of glamorizing violent responses to conflict.

  • Schools could be developing student leadership by teaching problem-solving and critical thinking skills, instead of drilling students in a command-style, follow-the-leader mentality.

Anti-violence policies must be applied consistently.
We cannot afford to send mixed messages to
young people about guns and violence.
If our goal is peaceful schools,
JROTC programs must go.

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