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

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

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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