Getting beyond JROTC

We'd much rather see local kids encouraged to become cops than directed into the military
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EDITORIAL The racial achievement gap is the most important issue in the School Board race, but JROTC is the most politically divisive. The ballot initiative that seeks to save the military recruitment program will be used to attack progressives, and there's a real risk that San Francisco will wind up sending a terrible message to the rest of the country.

This madness needs to stop. The School Board needs an alternative to JROTC that includes all the elements that make the program attractive to kids and families, without the military baggage. The outlines of that sort of plan are being discussed widely, and there's a fairly good consensus emerging about how such a program could be put together. The mayor, the supervisors and the school board ought to be working together, now, to make it happen.

The Junior Reserve Officer Training Program costs the San Francisco schools about $1 million a year, and it's a bad way to spend the money. Pentagon officials are very clear about the purpose of high-school JROTC: it exists to lure young people into the military. Recruiters take full advantage of the opportunity — JROTC enrollees are barraged with pitches to join up, and even after they've left the program, the recruiters keep calling.

The queer community is properly angry about our local tax dollars going to encouraging kids to join the military at a time when the armed forces won't allow lesbian or gay people to serve openly. But even after "don't ask, don't tell" is abolished, as it probably will be during the Obama administration, JROTC is the wrong sort of educational activity for San Francisco kids.

Supporters say the program offers leadership training and a sense of community — but if the best leadership and community building the San Francisco public schools can offer is through a program that instills the values of the Army, there's something seriously wrong.

So the school board did the right thing in phasing out the program.

But right now, the only thing the district is offering as a replacement is an ethnic studies program — a wonderful and deserving part of the curriculum, but not one that carries the same qualities that made JROTC popular. The substitute for JROTC ought to have some physical elements, ought to involve special training — and be set up to lead toward public service careers that don't involve enlisting in the armed services.

The idea that's been floated out by numerous School Board candidates involves some sort of emergency-response training for students. The idea would be to teach kids how to handle the aftermath of a disaster, like a major earthquake: participants would learn CPR, first aid, emergency communications, search-and-rescue and other skills that not only will be useful, but critical when the inevitable quake hits. The Fire Department already runs a very successful citizen-based Neighborhood Emergency Response Team (NERT), so the infrastructure is in place. The Police Department has a cadet program for high school graduates, and it could easily be adapted to train younger kids for emergency response duties.

The program would get students outside, involve physical exercise, and, yes, uniforms and badges (which the JROTC participants love). It could be a successful recruitment tool for careers in the Fire Department and Police Department (and since many of the JROTC kids come from communities of color, the result might be more diversity in those two agencies). We'd much rather see local kids encouraged to become cops than directed into the military.

There's $1 million on the table.

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