February 28, 2024

Congressional leaders have expanded their scrutiny of the military’s Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program, asking for information about the program’s enrollment practices, curriculum and sponsor relationships with the National Rifle Association.

In a letter sent this week to the Pentagon and Department of Education, four senators said they were “disturbed” by a New York Times article that detailed how some high schools were automatically placing freshmen into the military-sponsored programs at public high schools, at times over the objections of the students or their parents.

“The Times investigation raises concerns that the implementation of this program may be violating students’ civil rights by forcing them into the J.R.O.T.C. program and its mandatory requirements,” the senators wrote.

The letter was signed by four senators, including Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who is poised to lead a subcommittee focused on military personnel, and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who now leads the Senate committee that oversees education matters. In the House, two lawmakers with military backgrounds — Representatives Ted Lieu of California and Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania — have also been examining the issue.

J.R.O.T.C. programs operate as a partnership between the military, which certifies retired officers and noncommissioned officers to lead the classes, and local schools, which employ the instructors. The program now operates in thousands of schools, teaching half a million students a year about topics such as marksmanship, military history and life skills.

Many administrators and students have praised the program for teaching teenagers accountability and giving them guidance during formative years. The Pentagon has also said that students who participate are more likely to enlist — a key issue at a time when military recruiters have been struggling to meet their targets.

The Times article on automatic J.R.O.T.C. enrollment found that dozens of schools had made the program mandatory or steered more than 75 percent of students in a single grade into the classes. That included schools in Detroit, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Oklahoma City and Mobile, Ala.

The Times separately reported that the J.R.O.T.C. program’s textbooks included outdated gender messages and accounts of historical events that falsified or downplayed U.S. government failures. Another article detailed how many J.R.O.T.C. instructors had sought N.R.A. funding to support marksmanship teams while vowing to promote the N.R.A. at their schools or encourage students to participate in N.R.A. fund-raising activities.

The senators asked Pentagon and education officials for information about those practices, saying it was “unfathomable why J.R.O.T.C. instructors think it would be appropriate to direct students to volunteer for N.R.A. fund-raising.”

In their letter, the lawmakers have asked the Education Department and Defense Department to respond to a series of questions. They include inquiries about whether participation in J.R.O.T.C. is meant to be voluntary, whether the agencies have received reports about forced enrollment, whether the Pentagon was aware of relationships between the N.R.A. and J.R.O.T.C. programs and what processes are in place to review J.R.O.T.C. textbooks.

Lawmakers have been scrutinizing J.R.O.T.C. since last year, when The Times reported that at least 33 of the program’s instructors had been criminally charged with sexual misconduct involving students over a five-year period. That included several cases in which instructors charged with misconduct had previously been the subject of complaints that had not been acted on.

At a House oversight committee hearing last year, Pentagon officials expressed outrage about the abuse and were reviewing policies to standardize oversight of the program and improve coordination with school districts.

In recent correspondence with the senators, the Pentagon said that the military services received 114 allegations of violence, sexual abuse or sexual harassment by instructors over the last 10 years. Almost all of those cases resulted in instructors being removed from the program, the Pentagon said.

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