Dishonorable Discharge

School Board Axes ROTC, Draws Heavy Fire

According to a contract with the U.S. Army, the JROTC program is required to carry a minimum enrollment of 100 students per semester, while employing two full-time military instructors; despite showing an enrollment of 106 at the beginning of the 2005-’06 school year, the program now lists only 61 students. That number was unacceptable in the eyes of both district officials and the U.S. Army, which placed the program on probation a few months ago. However, according to School Boardmember Bob Noel, the board began closed-door discussions to consider cutting the ROTC program as a means of easing the pain of projected salary increases that were also negotiated in closed sessions in December of last year. The ethics of such maneuvering were called into question by School Board member Bob Noel, who said the closed-door talks amounted to “slipping controversial items past the public unnoticed and without input.”

Unfortunately for the School Board, the ROTC coup did not slip by unnoticed. At the final board meeting in February, ROTC supporters outed a letter—dated six weeks prior—written by Assistant Superintendent Jan Zettel to the U.S. Army, informing the military in writing of the district’s intent to discontinue the program by June 2006, even though the School Board had yet to vote on the matter. Further fueling the controversy was the Army’s reaction to the letter. Colonel Montgomery Johnson, who oversees all JROTC programs on the West Coast, made a surprise appearance at that meeting, announcing the Army intended to pull the plug on the SBHS JROTC due to low enrollment and in response to Zettel’s letter. Outrage concerning the decision is unlikely to burn out soon; ROTC advocate Denise d’Santangelo said she had begun the process of filing suit against the School Board for what she called a “blatant Brown Act violation” (which requires public access to meetings).

Roll Call While enrollment shortfalls and budget projections may rightfully dominate the School Board’s attention, the ROTC program is—for the 61 cadets currently enrolled—possibly the most important element of their public education. Meeting for one school period per day, five days each week, the program fosters in its students responsibility, discipline, commitment, and pride in themselves, their futures, and their communities.

According to ROTC instructor Steven Potts, “ROTC offers a feeling of belonging for kids who are never going be the star football player or the valedictorian. We take any student and work with them to create self-confidence and get them through high school.” Potts is quick to point out that his class is comprised mostly of low-income minority students from single-parent homes, special education students, and kids with behavioral issues, adding that during his six years with the program, “We have never had a student who didn’t graduate. But I know that if this program is cut, some students will drop school all together because they have nowhere else to go.” Similar observations were echoed repeatedly by parents and community members at recent School Board meetings. Barbara Hoffman, mother of a program graduate and registered Democrat, said, “It’s given a good place for a lot of young people in our community. [The junior ROTC] doesn’t try to put kids in the army—it just tries to save them.”

The military stigma is a very real concern for some parents; while the U.S. is ensnared in a state of ongoing, controversial war with mounting casualties and no end in sight, the antiwar backlash was called out by parents of many cadets as a motivating factor in the board’s decision. While the board emphatically denied this, Superintendent Brian Sarvis conceded, saying, “People see kids in uniform marching with toy rifles and saluting and they have a certain negative response to it.”

Conduct Unbecoming ROTC parents, students, and program instructors contend the bias goes deeper than the current antiwar climate, pointing to the historically below-par classroom provided for the JROTC program as evidence. For years, the class has been located in the basement of the field house at the high school, situated directly beneath locker rooms and showers. As a result, the ceiling of the room is a nest of aged pipes that have been the subject of repeated maintenance requests during the years and reports of a vile brown substance dripping from above that destroys books and leaves stains on student uniforms. According to Potts, his repeated requests for maintenance often went ignored or brought no result. District Facilities manager David Hetyonk said he received only one official request from ROTC, dated November 4, 2005. Hetyonk allowed that he only gets requests if the head custodian files them. “So, it is possible that a request was made that I never heard about.” As for the November maintenance request—which specifically references the brown liquid, believed by some parents to be fecal matter—the work order has yet to be fulfilled. Hetyonk, meanwhile, said he was confident the “brown goo” was just rusty water, leaking from the old showers above.

It should be noted that within 24 hours of The Independent’s request to visit the ROTC’s basement digs, the class was relocated upstairs to a newer, cleaner space, while clean-up efforts commenced below, rendering the old space, in the words of school assistant principal Bud Andrews, “a construction zone that’s off-limits—no one goes in that room.” Meanwhile, school principal Paul Turnbull refused to comment on the topic and directed Andrews to chaperone all press interviews with Potts, who said: “It’s not a numbers game at all. It’s just the opportune time for the district, which suffered through three years paid leave for an [ROTC instructor] who engaged in sexual misconduct, to get rid of a program they don’t support.” While Superintendent Sarvis could not comment on the specifics of the paid leave and sexual misconduct per district policy, he confirmed that a former director of ROTC was placed on paid leave and eventually fired for “inappropriate sexual conduct with a female cadet” in 2001. In killing the program Tuesday night, Sarvis and Turnbull offered a possible silver lining for the dozens of disappointed faces in the crowd. He described a “Service Leadership” program that would offer all the core values of the ROTC—without the immediate affiliation to the U.S. Army or the high cost to the district. While it was possible Tuesday night for the board to save the program and give it one more year to raise its enrollment, the option was effectively dead before it was even debated as the Army asked for and received the resignations of instructors Potts and Dan Michie last week. Shortly before Tuesday’s special meeting, Noel summed up the messy outcome: “It’s an unfortunate situation. To see the cadets in there, looking snappy and disciplined and doing well in school—it’s really something. Even if you don’t approve of the military, you have to stand up, take notice of the kids and their success.” But perhaps the greatest testimony to the program’s success came in its darkest hour as cadets—just moments after hearing the death sentence for their program—lined up rank and file and approached the School Boardmembers to shake their hands and thank them for the opportunity to defend the ROTC.

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