Demilitarizing Civilian Life: Counter Recruitment at East Boston High School

Peace Advocate June 2023

Signs of militarism at East Boston High School: sign at school entrance advertising the JROTC Military Ball; cadets distributing literature at commencement, June 16, 2023; Mayor Michelle Wu greeting students wearing the schools' F-15 insignia during her visit, 2022.
Signs of militarism at East Boston High School: sign at school entrance advertising the JROTC Military Ball; cadets distributing literature at commencement, June 16, 2023; Mayor Michelle Wu greeting students wearing the schools' F-15 insignia during her visit, 2022.

By Nancy Goldner and Rosemary Kean   

Thousands of public high schools students are enrolled without their consent in Junior Reserve Officer Training Corp (JROTC) classes taught by military veterans, according to a recent New York Times investigation. JROTC enrollment data from more than 200 public record requests covering the country’s 3500 public high schools revealed that thousands of students are being automatically enrolled or enroll themselves because of specific academic requirements imposed on them. The Times team also found that “a vast majority” of the schools with a high number of students enrolled in the JROTC are located in low wealth communities with large numbers of students of color.

The targeting of low wealth communities by military recruiters is known as the “poverty draft.” The term was coined in the 1980s to refer to young people being pulled to join the military because of their limited economic opportunities. The “poverty draft” continues to this day as the military is having great difficulty meeting its recruitment targets. They can count on JROTC programs to be a reliable source of recruits since up to 50 percent of JROTC cadets (as they are called) go on to join the military.

As the military stepped up its aggressive recruitment in public high schools, peace activists launched counter recruitment efforts.  Counter recruitment organizing also came in response to passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001.  This legislation mandated high schools to allow military recruitment on their campuses as well as the release of students’ contact information to recruiters.

Rick Jahnkow, a leading activist in counter recruitment who is interviewed in the article, has developed, disseminated and implemented counter recruitment strategies. He joined a  MAPA webinar on “Opposing the Militarization of Youth” on March 1, 2023. Counter-recruitment strategies focus on informing students of their right to opt out of having their contact information given to military recruiters and not to be enrolled in JROTC and in classes taught by JROTC instructors.

Just as crucial as the right to opt out, counter recruiters also educate students about the misleading inducements to enlist and the heightened risk of emotional, moral and physical injury serving in the military brings. At job fairs or recruitment events held on high school campuses, counter-recruiters ensure that students are informed about alternatives to enlistment.  For example, the Project on Youth and Non-Military Opportunities, founded by Jahnkow, engages high school teens to let them know they don’t have to join the military to be housed, fed, find a vocation. be employed or pay for college. This is especially important to students from low wealth communities experiencing uncertainty about a vocational path, employment, and food and housing security.

East Boston High School’s logo depicts F-15 fighter-bombers. In keeping with its military association, its teams are called the Jets.

East Boston High School has an active JROTC program with a large number of enrollees.  We, along with a member of Veterans for Peace and a volunteer from Necessary Dissent, Jeff and Sam, traveled to East Boston High early on April 26th to pass out palm cards to students. These informational cards titled “Questions to Consider” are printed by the War Resisters League and written especially for high school students who may be considering going into the military or who have friends who are.

Two of the questions on the card are: “Are you morally OK to fight in any war, in any place, at any time, even if you don’t believe it’s right? Would you be willing to participate in actions that could cause the loss of many innocent lives?” The information on the cards offers teens another perspective on military service than the one put forward by recruitment advertising, I.e., that military service would help them get a job after their service and that their best opportunity to get a college scholarship would be to join the military.

On arrival, we observed a sign at the front of the brick, three story, 1926 Greek Revival school building. The sign was advertising the “Military Ball” coming up on May 11, “cadets $35, non-cadets $40.”

Shortly after we began passing out the palm cards to students hurrying into school, the security guard came out and asked us to move, at least across the street. We let him know, in a friendly manner, that we knew it was our right to be on the sidewalk, we weren’t blocking the entrance, and that we were not going to relocate across the street. He went back in the school and then a large, friendly- appearing man came out and introduced himself as the school principal. He remained at the entryway for quite a while, greeting students and sometimes interacting with us.

The principal was puzzled about why we would want to discourage students from participating in the Junior Reserve Officer Training (JROTC) program. We explained that we thought public schools should not be recruiting students for military service as a part of their high school experience. He said “We’re not recruiting.” He said that he only knew of five or six students who had actually joined a branch of the U.S. military after graduation. This was a surprising statement, given the estimates that a significant percentage of students who participate in JROTC later enlist in the military.

As we were leafleting, someone approached the principal to ask where the job fair was being held.  When Nancy asked the principal if military recruiters would be taking part in the job fair he said “no.”

After we had passed out all 300 of our palm cards and were preparing to leave, Sam noticed a man in military uniform leaving a vehicle carrying a briefcase full of materials and asked him “Are you going to the career fair?” The officer answered “yes” as he proceeded to enter the school, and we were left with the impression that the principal had deliberately misled us when he said earlier that the military would not be part of the career fair.

In response to our email request for leafleting volunteers, a parent wrote: “My son is in the 8th grade at EBHS. They added 7th and 8th to the school in 2021 and put at least all the 8th graders through a JROTC class that they call “Civics”.  My son opted out of the class with his parents’ support. Most students and parents aren’t aware of their rights. A teacher recently told me the program is controversial among faculty.”

Like other schools targeted for JROTC programs, East Boston High School needs resources.  15-19% of its students have achieved math proficiency (compared to the 37% MA state average), while 25-29% of students have achieved reading proficiency (compared to the 49% MA state average).   86% of students are income-eligible for free lunch, according to Public School Review.

Isn’t it time to amend the No Child Left Behind Act and to get military recruitment out of our high schools?  Short of that, won’t you join us next Fall to make sure that parents and students are aware that they can “opt out?”  Please contact

Nancy Goldner and Rosemary Kean are members of MAPA’s Racial Justice/ Indigenous Solidarity Working Group.