IN 2016 the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC), a Pentagon-funded programme that provides military-style training to high-school pupils, notched up its centenary. The occasion was marked with balls, dinners and fun runs. Today the mood among JROTC units is less celebratory. On February 14th a former JROTC cadet opened fire at a high school in Parkland, Florida, killing 14 students and three teachers. When the shooter, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, was arrested by authorities, he was wearing a polo shirt emblazoned with the JROTC crest. As if this were not enough, days after the shooting it emerged that in 2016 Mr Cruz’s unit had received $10,827 from the National Rifle Association.
This is not the first time the JROTC has faced public scrutiny. Parents and advocacy groups have criticised the programme, which offers courses in military history and marksmanship, for steering pupils towards the armed services rather than higher education. Such recruitment efforts, they say, target pupils in poor minority neighbourhoods. The JROTC programme is also costly. The Department of Defence spends $370m a year supplying about 3,500 public high schools with textbooks, uniforms and equipment, but local school districts pay half of instructors’ salaries. Some parents say the money would be better spent on something other than marching and shooting.
Military top brass chafe at the suggestion that the JROTC is chiefly a recruitment scheme. But for many years the programme’s funding fell under the recruitment-and-training section of the Pentagon’s budget. And in 2000 William Cohen, then defence secretary, told congressmen that the JROTC was “one of our best recruiting tools”.
The claim that JROTC programmes are aimed at poor minority schools also has some truth to it. A recent paper by the RAND Corporation, a think-tank, finds that among schools with JROTC programmes, 57% of pupils are eligible for free or reduced-cost lunches and 29% are black. At schools without JROTC, these figures are 47% and 12% respectively.
Supporters argue, however, that these are precisely the students that benefit most from JROTC. In 1992, at the behest of General Colin Powell, President George H.W. Bush doubled the size of the JROTC, expanding the programme into America’s inner cities. A military-style education, it was argued, would provide disadvantaged pupils with structure and discipline. Since the JROTC’s expansion, several studies have found that the programme is associated with stronger academic results, including better attendance and higher graduation rates. Many pupils say the programme has changed their lives.
Whether the JROTC also leads to greater gun use is less clear. Many JROTC cadets take marksmanship courses and compete on rifle teams (most use air rifles, which fire pellets, rather than actual firearms, which use gunpowder). There are more than 2,000 high-school rifle teams registered with America’s Civilian Marksmanship Programme, a gun-safety advocacy group. In the aftermath of the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, in which 12 students and a teacher were killed, Chicago’s public schools ended JROTC rifle training because it clashed with the city’s “zero tolerance” gun policy. That was not the case for Smithfield-Selma High School in Smithfield, North Carolina. In 2016, the school made headlines for converting an unused greenhouse into a 1,200-square-foot on-campus shooting range. It cost $10,400.