America’s Tween Soldiers

Middle schoolers: Uncle Sam wants you

Seth Kershner

August Say, 12, holds out his arm to determine where he should stand in class in the new Dragon Leadership Corps at his middle school in Bowling Green, Ohio.

Last year, Hen­ry F. Moss Mid­dle School in Bowl­ing Green, Ohio, offered stu­dents a brand new course. And, as a head­line in the local news­pa­per pro­claimed, this was not your tra­di­tion­al class.” For starters, the teacher — an army sergeant — had told the Bowl­ing Green Dai­ly News that one of his goals was to expose these sev­enth- and eighth-graders to mil­i­tary val­ues” that they could use as build­ing blocks” in life. To that end, stu­dents in the class earn mil­i­tary style ranks, engage in army-style PT” (phys­i­cal train­ing) and each Wednes­day, wear cam­ou­flage pants and boots.

A review of programs in more than a dozen states found that there are at least 97 public middle schools currently offering military-style education.

This is the Moss Mid­dle School Lead­er­ship Corps, part of the grow­ing trend of mil­i­tary-style edu­ca­tion for pre-adolescents.

Mid­dle school mil­i­tary pro­grams are younger cousins of the Junior Reserve Offi­cers’ Train­ing Corps (JROTC), a Pen­ta­gon pro­gram taught by retired mil­i­tary offi­cers and present in more than 3,500 high schools nation­wide. Although there are strong sim­i­lar­i­ties with JROTC— mil­i­tary-style uni­forms, close-order drills, a cur­ricu­lum that empha­sizes patri­o­tism and mil­i­tary his­to­ry — the key dif­fer­ence is that JROTC is sup­port­ed by fed­er­al funds and mid­dle school mil­i­tary pro­grams are not, by fed­er­al law. That means the con­tin­ued exis­tence of the mid­dle school pro­grams depends on state or dis­trict fund­ing and, in some cas­es, char­i­ta­ble contributions.

Although the local­ized nature of the pro­grams and the vari­ety of names they go by — most com­mon­ly lead­er­ship corps” or cadet corps” — make them dif­fi­cult to quan­ti­fy, a review of pro­grams by In These Times in more than a dozen states found that there are at least 97 pub­lic mid­dle schools cur­rent­ly offer­ing mil­i­tary-style education.

A dri­ving force is the Fort Worth, Texas-based Nation­al Mid­dle School Cadet Corps (NMSCC), a non­prof­it that sup­plies cur­ricu­lum and sup­port to more than 50 mid­dle school mil­i­tary pro­grams nation­wide. In a 2013 pre­sen­ta­tion to Fort Worth school offi­cials, Jere­mi­ah Mar­shall, COO of NMSCC, dis­played a U.S. map with dozens of strate­gi­cal­ly affixed red dots. Our goal and vision is to get a pro­gram every­where that you see one of those red dots,” he said.

Though such pro­grams date back to the 1990s — begin­ning in Tul­sa, Okla­homa — it was only after a tremen­dous expan­sion of the pro­grams in the 2000s that mount­ing con­cerns about mid­dle school mil­i­tarism led to the first known cas­es of orga­nized resis­tance. In Feb­ru­ary 2004, at the height of grass­roots oppo­si­tion to the Iraq War, Los Ange­les-area activists con­vened a work­shop titled Stop­ping Mil­i­tarism in Our Schools” that includ­ed extend­ed dis­cus­sion of mid­dle school mil­i­tary pro­grams. More sig­nif­i­cant and sus­tained orga­niz­ing has arisen in Louisville, Ken­tucky, where a local chap­ter of the Fel­low­ship of Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion (FOR) — a cen­tu­ry-old orga­ni­za­tion devot­ed to pro­mot­ing social jus­tice issues — has been at the fore­front of a cam­paign to block the mil­i­ta­riza­tion of a local mid­dle school.

Activist Chris Harmer, a mem­ber of Louisville FOR’s steer­ing com­mit­tee, and his col­leagues leapt into action in Decem­ber 2012, when the coun­ty school board expressed inter­est in estab­lish­ing a cadet acad­e­my” mag­net school at Myers Mid­dle School. To sup­port their case, coun­ty school board mem­bers pre­sent­ed an analy­sis of 900 high-school stu­dents by the school district’s office of data man­age­ment. Their report con­clud­ed that JROTC stu­dents had bet­ter aca­d­e­m­ic out­comes, few­er dis­ci­pline prob­lems and high­er atten­dance than their non-JROTC peers.

Know­ing that the dis­trict would respect hard data more than activists’ opin­ions, Harmer and his col­leagues invit­ed Jason Gain­ous, a polit­i­cal sci­ence pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Louisville, to scru­ti­nize the school district’s study. At a school board meet­ing in Decem­ber 2013, Gain­ous unveiled his con­clu­sion: There was no sta­tis­ti­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence between JROTC and non-JROTC stu­dents. Harmer says Gainous’s study is very embar­rass­ing to the school admin­is­tra­tion, which says it is com­mit­ted to evi­dence-based decision-making.”

One of the most fre­quent­ly tout­ed claims by pro­po­nents of mid­dle school mil­i­tary train­ing is that the dis­ci­pline improves aca­d­e­m­ic and behav­ioral per­for­mance. How­ev­er, in what appears to be the only empir­i­cal study of this top­ic, a Uni­ver­si­ty of Hous­ton grad­u­ate stu­dent found that mid­dle school mil­i­tary pro­grams in three Texas school dis­tricts may lead to improved stu­dent atten­dance, but have no dis­cernible impact on read­ing and math scores. Crit­ics, seiz­ing on this lack of hard data, sug­gest that the most like­ly effect of these pro­grams is to encour­age youth to embrace the mil­i­tary as a career path.

So are such pro­grams sim­ply pro­mot­ing mil­i­tary careers to young chil­dren? In response to this ques­tion, Colonel Lar­ry Mor­den, exec­u­tive offi­cer of the Cal­i­for­nia Cadet Corps, a Nation­al Guard pro­gram with a pres­ence in approx­i­mate­ly 30 mid­dle schools, was emphat­ic: The num­ber one goal is to pro­vide [the] cadet with lead­er­ship train­ing,” he wrote in an email to In These Times. We do NOT stress a mil­i­tary career.”

How­ev­er, some pro­grams, like the one at Moss Mid­dle School, are explic­it­ly designed to pre­pare stu­dents for high school JROTC, which (accord­ing to the military’s own sur­veys) sends about 40 per­cent of its grad­u­ates into the military.

Oppo­nents of mid­dle school mil­i­tary train­ing pro­grams often cite the appar­ent eth­nic pro­fil­ing of poor and minor­i­ty chil­dren. In 2003, two teach­ers’ union activists pre­sent­ed res­o­lu­tions to the Los Ange­les school board to lim­it mil­i­tary pro­grams’ out­reach and expan­sion, in which they not­ed that the Cal­i­for­nia Cadet Corps’ mid­dle school pro­grams were con­cen­trat­ed dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly in low income, work­ing class communities.”

Today, that pat­tern appears to hold. For exam­ple, the mil­i­tary pro­gram is cur­rent­ly present in eight of the 10 mid­dle schools in Comp­ton, one of the state’s poor­est cities, where Lati­nos make up two-thirds of the pop­u­la­tion. At Myers Mid­dle School in Louisville, 69 per­cent of stu­dents are minori­ties and more than 80 per­cent qual­i­fy for free or reduced-price school lunches.

Crit­ics argue that equal­i­ty of edu­ca­tion­al oppor­tu­ni­ty is under­mined when schools over-expose African-Amer­i­can and Lati­no stu­dents at such a young age to the armed ser­vices. Mil­i­tary train­ing pro­grams can chew up a large por­tion of the school bud­get, leav­ing lit­tle room for aca­d­e­m­ic enrich­ment like music or after-school pro­grams — or even more basic fare, like col­lege prep class­es. Accord­ing to a 2006 report by UCLA’s Insti­tute for Democ­ra­cy, Edu­ca­tion and Access, 73 per­cent of Los Ange­les Coun­ty high schools that offer JROTC do not offer enough col­lege prepara­to­ry cours­es for all stu­dents to take a col­lege prepara­to­ry cur­ricu­lum.” In Chris Harmer’s words: Poor and minor­i­ty kids are being tracked into mil­i­tary careers as ear­ly as sixth grade. That’s what’s so insid­i­ous about this.”

Last Sep­tem­ber, the Fel­low­ship of Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion joined a coali­tion of near­ly 60 non-gov­ern­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions, aca­d­e­m­ic researchers and oth­ers to launch the cam­paign A Nation­al Call: Save Civil­ian Edu­ca­tion. Their goal: to resist fur­ther incur­sions from the mil­i­tary and to push oth­er pro­gres­sive orga­ni­za­tions to make the issue a priority.

At the same time, the cam­paign against mil­i­ta­riza­tion has led Louisville FOR — which is made up, Harmer says wry­ly, of mid­dle-aged white left­ies”— to look at broad­er issues of race and class injus­tice. The group has joined a coali­tion focus­ing on anoth­er prob­lem in Louisville schools — racial dis­par­i­ties in stu­dent achievement.

We need to con­tin­u­al­ly put our anti-mil­i­tarism work into the larg­er con­text,” he wrote in an email to In These Times. What he and oth­er activists have called the school-to-mil­i­tary pipeline” is an issue deeply con­nect­ed with anti-pover­ty and anti-racism work. Sim­ply put, Harmer added, The work is an inte­gral piece of a broad­er move­ment toward a more just society.”

Seth Ker­sh­n­er is a writer and researcher whose work has appeared in out­lets such as Rethink­ing Schools, Sojourn­ers, and Boul­der Week­ly. He is the co-author (with Scott Hard­ing) of Counter-Recruit­ment and the Cam­paign to Demil­i­ta­rize Pub­lic Schools (Pal­grave Macmil­lan, 2015).
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