Challenging the Military’s Recruitment in our Schools

Peace Advocate November 2023

From left: Claire Gosselin, Rosemary Kean, Nancy Goldner, and Graham Aiken, members of MAPA's Racial Justice / Indigenous Solidarity working group, leaflet outside English High School in Boston.

by Nancy Goldner and Rosemary Kean

When the No Child Left Behind Act was passed in 2002, US military recruiters gained access to American high schools on a basis equivalent to recruiters for colleges and civilian employers. The Act also mandated that the contact information of high school juniors and seniors be given to military recruiters at the start of each school year. These requirements represented a significant expansion of the military’s presence in American high schools, although they were predated by the presence of Junior Reserve Officers Training Programs (JROTCs) established in 1916. JROTCs are now offered in 3500 high schools across the country and enroll half a million students. JROTC classes are taught by retired military personnel.  

The increased presence of the military in American high schools has brought about a disturbing development. A NY Times investigation has found that in a great number of schools, predominantly in low-wealth communities, the JROTC programs have been made mandatory and, in others, more than 75% of students in a single grade have been steered into them. Underlying this trend is a steep drop in the number of annual enlistments, compared to those needed to maintain the military’s all-volunteer forces.

The decline in enlistments stems from multiple factors: fewer than one in four young people are eligible to enlist while about one in 10 believe military service will harm them in some way. Tellingly, in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Stephanie Miller, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Military Personnel, stated that “uninformed messaging by non-military organizations highlights the risks of military service.”

Rather than conducting “uninformed messaging,” counter-recruitment activists are informing young people of their right to protect their privacy and of their right not to be to be placed in JROTC classes without their consent. This was our objective in organizing a leafleting action at four City of Boston High Schools in September 2023.

Volunteers from MAPA, Veterans for Peace, and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom handed out hundreds of palm cards at the beginning of the school day at English High School, Jeremiah Burke High School, Madison Park Technical-Vocational High School and the Charlestown High School. These schools have high percentages of students classified as “economically disadvantaged.”  Since the campus of the O’Bryant School for Math and Science abuts Madison Park, many O’Bryant students also took our cards. O’Bryant has a naval JROTC as well as military personnel teaching “leadership skills” and physical education. 

The front of the palm card gives the “opt out” procedure to prevent the release of student contact information or forced enrollment in JROTC classes. The back lists “peaceful careers” that provide a sense of purpose and self-discipline as well as financial support, food and housing security, a career pathway, job experience, and tuition costs just as the military claims it offers.

The palm card can be viewed digitally here.

At the high schools, we deployed ourselves on the sidewalk by the school entrance or nearby.  As students hurried by us, we handed our palm card to those willing to take it. On two mornings, we were thanked by parents who were dropping off their children for the information we provided, one of whom also said she wondered about the presence of military recruiters. Unfortunately, we have no way of determining what our overall impact was, especially on students’ exercising their right to “opt out.”  

Given the low rate of enlistment by high school students, military leadership is proposing to focus on community college students.  Although not yet funded, the “Enlisted Training Corp” will be modeled on the ROTCs at colleges and universities. (Military Times, July 19, 2023).   Counter recruitment will continue to be a priority of MAPA’s demilitarization campaign but, perhaps in the future, we will be on the campuses of community colleges.

—Nancy Goldner is a longstanding member of MAPA’s Racial Justice / Indigenous Solidarity working group. She first became engaged in counter-recruitment activism in the early 2000s with Brooklyn for Peace. Rosemary Kean is a co-convener of the same working group and co-chair of MAPA’s Board of Directors.