We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

It’s 8 a.m. and Anacostia High is empty—except for four freshmen with guns. Behind mesh metal doors, yellowing desks host ratty textbooks under chairs. The clock above them has seized long ago, the victim of an errant gunshot. In the back of the classroom, the young men lie on their bellies, clutching rifles and hoping not to miss.

“I wouldn’t jerk that trigger,” brays Command Sgt. Maj. Larry Horton. “I told you about jerking stuff.” His double-entendre, intended or not, quickly translates to giggles among the young men. Their rifles give off a muffled report as they shoot toward the glowing paper targets in the classroom-cum-rifle-range. After one more round, the cadets of Anacostia’s Raider Battalion run frantically to check their scores.

Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) classes, the Pentagon’s version of youth marketing, are taking District schools by storm. Within the past three years, four District schools—Anacostia, Cardozo, and Dunbar High Schools plus Harris junior high—have opted for a mandatory draft of incoming freshmen (in Dunbar’s case, sophomores) into JROTC. Overall, 17 District schools participate in JROTC one way or another, with some junior high and elementary schools placing students in “informal” sessions with free-lance military instructors. The militarization of a school system beset by violence would seem to raise big questions, but D.C. schools czar Gen. Julius Becton is marching in goose step with the trend. “If it was up to me, JROTC would be in every school in the District,” Becton recently told a parents group.

Maybe he will get his wish. The growing affiliation with JROTC makes sense to many people inside the District’s beleaguered and chaotic schools. After all, the program’s starch-deluxe classes offer quickie lessons in discipline and respect—two of the many casualties of D.C.’s crumbling educational infrastructure. Students who spend a little time with a stern-faced drill sergeant, school principals reason, are less likely to disrupt class or diss their teachers.

In JROTC, students learn military history, marching drills, and for those lucky enough, marksmanship. Life in many District schools resembles a war zone, so JROTC’s initial appeal is easy to understand. But the yessirs and about-faces that now echo in the hallways are not music to the ears of everyone. With every mandatory JROTC placement, the schools surrender territory once controlled exclusively by classroom instructors—namely, barking some discipline into their students. The District has a school system run by a military man, and now some of the people on the front lines are wearing uniforms. Can the National Guard be far behind?

The fifth-period bell rings and Horton is not pleased. Shaking his head, he checks the attendance sheet and looks up. Only 10 freshman—about half the class—bother to show up, and most come a few minutes late. This is not what a drill instructor wants from his green cadets.

Looking a little confused, Horton finally assembles them in an adjacent hall for some marching practice. It’s cold enough in the hall to set teeth chattering. Three students wear bulky coats and most have trouble keeping from rolling their eyes as he barks orders. The line is more Three Stooges than A Few Good Men.

The class collapses into a jumble of misplaced left feet when Horton picks Kiana Jones to run the drill. She can’t stop laughing long enough to direct the unit. He yells at her: “Twenty-five push-ups for smiling!” and a moment later stops her again. “Twenty-five more! You got to be serious! How about 30 and seven for all the numbers you missed.” She giggles again when one student forgets to turn and crashes into the wall. “Give me five push-ups!” Horton bellows. “If I can’t make you smart, I’m going to make you stronger.”

Horton cuts the drill short, and the class returns for a swift lecture. After class, Jones admits she has trouble being serious about playing soldier. “I always get called up there and I always start laughing,” she explains. “It’s funny the way he be calling the commands, the way he sounds. It’s funny.”

When the armed forces launched JROTC in 1919, they had no intention of amusing teenage girls. In its original incarnation, JROTC served as a highly effective recruiting tool for the three services. Supporters hoped that recruits would learn the basics—chain of command, teamwork, and military protocol—before enlisting. The program worked pretty well through the major wars—WWII, Korea, and Vietnam—but came upon a midlife crisis with the end of the Cold War. That’s when JROTC began its sudden metamorphosis from recruiting mechanism to youth re-education camp.

In a 1992 speech before Congress, Gen. Colin Powell pitched JROTC as a way of revitalizing the inner city from within. If the military could win the Gulf War, it could surely win the drug war. And if boot camps were becoming acceptable places to put juvenile offenders, why not generalize the concept to imperiled schools?

Urban school districts and Congress quickly raised the white flags. Congress upped the national ceiling on JROTC units from 1,600 to 3,500, and school districts across the country responded nicely. The JROTC tally doubled to 2,700 by late 1996, according to Harold Jordan, coordinator of the Philadelphia-based American Friends Service Committee (AFSC).

JROTCs are even catching on below the senior-high level. In addition to the 13 high schools that now offer JROTC, a crop of elementary and junior high schools are joining the ranks. Garnett-Patterson and Hine Junior High, along with Harrison Elementary, students regularly work on drills, marching, and self-discipline with instructors. Students are also encouraged to take JROTC as a way out of their community-service requirements. A JROTC cadet can get community-service credit by marching in parades, attending a luncheon for Mayor Barry, and even ushering parents around the school during PTA nights.

All the interest in JROTC has program directors looking for reinforcements. “We’ve got a full workload,” says Col. Joseph Nickens, JROTC director for the D.C. schools. “We have elementary-school principals that call me monthly.”

Many principals are making full use of their JROTC programs, diverting their harder cases into the paramilitary drills. JROTC instructors gripe that they are used as roving cops. “The principal says these kids need discipline, send them to ROTC,” explains Lt. Col. Frank Scotti of Roosevelt High. “Sometimes, they’ll talk to the kid and say, ‘Give it a try.’ I get the whole spectrum.”

Principals like the fact that JROTC is the kind of instruction that may have a future attached. “The uniqueness of the ROTC is that it has a direct connection to a career pathway,” says Stephen J. Wesley, Anacostia’s principal. “That’s fine—it’s indoctrination.” Wesley and others reason that in a city where poor kids don’t have many ladders out of poverty, early exposure to the military has a clear benefit.

A conflict-resolution counselor who works in a Southeast high school believes that mandatory JROTC classes send a mixed message to the kids as well as community leaders. She refuses to be quoted by name, fearing for her job if she speaks out against JROTC.

“It makes me really nervous, with Gen. Becton as the head of schools,” she explains. “D.C. schools are feeling so desperate that they are looking for any help they can get. They are looking for any support, and that’s come from the military.”

She adds that budget cuts have forced the dismissal of 18 teachers in her school, while JROTC outlays received a bye. “To me, there’s a real paradox in looking for an organization that teaches kids how to kill and the history of war to be the organization to teach them about peace,” she says. “It doesn’t seem like a sensible way. The schools are really banking on it.”

You can say that again. Run by retired officers, the city pays the difference between the instructors’ retirement and active-duty pay, while the military provides textbooks, uniforms, and equipment. The Pentagon insists the deal is a 50-50 split.

AFSC’s Jordan says that’s not the case. “Once ROTC gets its foot in the door, the costs go up,” he explains. “Then it becomes a political issue—it becomes unstoppable. It’s harder to kick them out than keep them out.”

Indeed, for its fiscal ’96 budget, D.C. pays $571,285—about $450 per student—compared to the feds’ $465,979. The financially bereft District bears more than 55 percent of the cost of maintaining JROTC in the school system. With more schools seeking a piece of the paramilitary pie, that price could go up.

Ralph Neal, assistant superintendent in charge of senior high schools, says he certainly doesn’t want to give up JROTC. “Even though the Act says that, what are the people?” Neal says. “We are not in the business of recruiting the Army. Any program that teaches leadership is worth the money.”

Most JROTC students are natural soldiers in abeyance. Not gifted in athletics or music, most high-school JROTC stars obsess over their spiffy shoes, military insignia, and keeping that forearm stiffly parallel to the ground on right-shoulder arms. For these types, the more discipline the better, the more shouting the better, the more push-ups the better. But the mandatory nature of D.C. relationship with JROTC is pushing unwilling and disinclined kids into the ranks. It’s a bad fit.

At Anacostia, for example, several JROTC students complain that the disciplinary measures of their head instructor, Maj. Lee Bowman Jr., are a bit too extreme for their tastes. “Sometimes he whips us with belts,” says a freshman female who refused to be identified. “He did it once, and I tried to run. He hit me about 10 times. It hurt but it wasn’t like a real beating. He hit me on my hips.”

Although Bowman denies hitting the cadets, he admits to threatening them “once in a while.” “I’ll be your mom, I’ll be your daddy. I’ll train you,” says Bowman.

“I don’t see why it’s a requirement,” explains Cardozo freshman Thomas Taylor. “I can’t drop it. They told me I couldn’t drop it. They say you get discipline from it, but I’m not dedicated to the Army. They keep saying, ‘You could be a good person in the Army.’ I don’t know about Latinos or whites, but blacks don’t like the Army.”

Cardozo senior Nestor Ramires says he felt drafted, plain and simple. “When I was in the ninth grade, the counselor made me take it. I think they give it to people who can’t speak English. Latinos will keep saying ‘no’ and they just laugh. I came from El Salvador in ’90, and we carried guns all the time.” He added that pretend soldiering was the last thing he needed.

JROTC has brought talented and dedicated people into District schools, but they answer to the Pentagon, not the school district or parents. The majority are not certified to teach and have little experience dealing with teenagers. And the instructors are often poorly equipped to handle the racial dynamics of a District school. “From the comments that I got from the African-American students and Latin American students, the officers pit the races against each other. That is my sense,” says the conflict resolution counselor.

John Judge, a member of the CHOICES, a nonprofit group that counsels high-school kids on career options, argues that JROTC—mandatory or not—is a waste of time for school kids. From a career perspective, JROTC is like playing the lottery, says Judge. Only about 15 percent of those on the G.I. Bill ever graduate from college, and only 8 percent of Army officers are black.

“I think the overall effect is to manipulate the kids,” Judge says. “For every Colin Powell, there’s tens of thousands of kids who are out there on the street because of a discharge. How many people have to go through it for one guy to get that million dollars? These kids are being given a snow job.”

For many D.C. school kids, JROTC is just one more part of the drill. They’ve learned to endure, but don’t expect them to salute.

—Jason Cherkis