This story was published in partnership with Chalkbeat Chicago.
Hundreds of Chicago Public Schools students at predominantly Black and Latino high schools were forced to participate in what is supposed to be a “voluntary” military-run training program, according to a new report released Wednesday detailing an investigation by the district’s watchdog.
The practice of automatically enrolling students in JROTC, or the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, has drawn scrutiny for steering teens from under-resourced schools toward military careers and away from other educational or job opportunities.
The probe by CPS’s Office of Inspector General was prompted by a Chalkbeat investigation that found that over the past two years, nearly all freshmen at 10 CPS high schools were automatically enrolled in JROTC, a daily class led by military instructors covering military science, leadership development and citizenship. JROTC students are required to dress in military uniforms weekly, march in drills and adhere to the program’s grooming standards, the OIG stated.
Automatic enrollment has continued this year at five high schools that are majority-Black or Latino, CPS data show.
CPS did not dispute the OIG’s findings and said it would enact a number of changes to stop the practice, such as requiring written parental consent for JROTC participants.
The OIG found that all or nearly all freshmen at some South and West Side high schools were enrolled “without any choice in the matter” and often placed in JROTC “in lieu of” physical education. By contrast, larger North Side high schools, where more students are white, had significantly lower percentages of freshmen enrolled in JROTC.
The OIG’s investigation also found:
One school overenrolled students with disabilities into the program. At the school, students with disabilities were about 29% of the school’s population but made up 68% of JROTC participants.
One student who is a practicing Jehovah’s Witness was unable to opt out of the program even after she and her mother raised religious objections.
Military instructors destroyed parental consent forms, in some cases out of “COVID-19 safety concerns.”
CPS paid military instructors using a different, higher pay scale than the district’s unionized teachers.
JROTC enrollment at six high schools was below the threshold required by law to maintain the programs.
The evidence of automatic enrollment raises questions about how CPS came to have what it says is the country’s largest JROTC operation, with nearly 10,000 students at one point, making the program a point of pride for city politicians from former Mayor M. Daley to current Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
“Chicago has for so long been this poster child of military schools,” said Seth Kershner, a researcher at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who studies the military’s role in public education. “So much of these numbers and success story in Chicago is based on compulsion, coercion.”
“This is a landmark case”
The OIG’s nearly yearlong probe reviewed JROTC enrollment procedures over the past five years at the 37 CPS high schools with JROTC programs, not including the district’s six military academies, where JROTC participation is mandatory.
The OIG identified four high schools that enrolled 100% of freshmen in Army JROTC programs in each of the past two years, starting with the 2019-20 school year. It found another four high schools enrolled more than 90% of freshmen in Army JROTC programs over the same span.
The OIG did not publish the names of schools or those it interviewed, which included students, parents, principals, military instructors and district JROTC leadership. According to Chalkbeat’s reporting, automatic enrollment has occurred at seven small and predominantly Black high schools — Bowen, Fenger, Harlan, Julian, King, Manley and Michele Clark — along with Kelvyn Park, Gage Park and Spry Community Links, three schools where the majority of students are Latino.
In response to the OIG’s investigation, CPS told the office it “agrees” that “no school should automatically enroll any student or class of students into the JROTC program unless it is a feature of the school’s program, is included in their recruitment and enrollment materials and transparently advertised to parents and students on their websites.”
CPS also told the OIG that starting next school year, the district would require schools to issue a new parental consent form for JROTC participants.
“This is a landmark case where there’s going to be some clear action taken against automatic enrollment,” Kershner said.
The OIG’s investigation, along with interviews and existing research, suggest automatic enrollment is linked to a complex set of factors, including principals of cash-strapped schools using federally subsidized military instructors to save money and the Army’s desire to expand a fruitful recruiting pipeline. The widespread acceptance of the U.S. military’s regular presence in public schools, which experts like Kershner say is unique among Western democracies, also plays a role.
In Chicago, automatic JROTC enrollment has occurred almost exclusively at smaller high schools on the city’s South and West Sides that serve a mostly low-income student body. The schools have seen overall enrollment decline in recent years, leaving them with fewer resources to fund elective programs or hire enough physical education teachers, principals told the OIG.
Principals view JROTC instructors as “free” because their salaries are paid by CPS’s Central Office and the U.S. Department of Defense, according to the OIG’s report. (CPS paid 69% of instructor costs last year, while the DOD covered the remaining 31%, the OIG found.)
Because JROTC fulfills Illinois’ daily physical education requirement, the class is seen as a logical replacement for PE. However, research has shown that students who take JROTC as a substitute for PE engage in less moderate-to-vigorous exercise and are less likely to “accrue health-supporting physical activity.”
The pushback to automatic enrollment in Chicago — by students, parents, teachers and anti-war activists — comes during a broader national movement confronting the way communities of color are policed and treated, including in schools.
“Our kids are being ushered into the military,” said Wiley Johnson, a parent and chair of the Local School Council at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. College Prep on Chicago’s South Side, where all 110 freshmen were enrolled in JROTC by default last school year.
JROTC participants are not required to serve in the military after high school, but the program seeks to “create favorable attitudes and impressions” toward the armed services and military careers and has proven a successful recruiting tool. The Army, for example, found that students at high schools with JROTC programs are more than twice as likely to enlist after graduation.
A majority of CPS’s JROTC programs are affiliated with the Army, though a handful of schools have a Navy, Air Force or Marine program. The OIG did not find automatic enrollment at schools with JROTC programs run by other military branches.
In 2019, after failing to meet its recruiting goals, the Army reportedly boosted recruiting efforts in Chicago and other left-leaning cities that historically produce fewer recruits than more conservative areas.
Investigation found some parents in the dark
Signing students up for JROTC at schools with automatic enrollment “operated like a pre-checked box,” and students “had to get themselves removed from it if they did not want it,” the OIG found. “Sometimes this was possible; sometimes it was not.”
The process for opting out of the program was “often inconsistent, poorly communicated or non-existent,” according to the OIG’s report.
CPS JROTC leadership told the OIG that signed parent consent forms “proved student enrollment in JROTC was voluntary,” but principals at nearly all schools with automatic enrollment “had never heard of these forms,” the OIG found. Additionally, military instructors were unable to provide the OIG with a random sample of the consent forms.
“Some JROTC instructors said forms requested by the OIG had been destroyed or discarded — in a few cases out of what was described, curiously, as Covid-19 safety concerns,” the OIG found.
A CPS official told the OIG the destruction of such records violated the district’s records retention policy.
In response, CPS said it had provided records training to some officials and would offer additional training at the district’s annual Legal Conference.
Even when schools provided parent consent forms, they “did not contain enough information about JROTC to constitute knowing parent consent for a student to participate in JROTC,“ the OIG found.
Last year, Col. Daniel L. Baggio, head of CPS’s Department of JROTC Leadership, told Chalkbeat that parents were “informed at the very beginning” about their students’ participation in JROTC.
Baggio did not respond to requests for comment.
CPS told the OIG it was working with the JROTC department on a “universal JROTC enrollment form.” But CPS has yet to provide the OIG with a “verification process” for these forms, such as when they will be due and who will ensure they are on file, the OIG said.
The district said in a statement that changes made in response to the inspector general report “will provide a more transparent and equitable approach” to its JROTC programs.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Army Cadet Command, which oversees the Army’s JROTC operation, said it does not have a policy requiring parental permission to enroll a high school student in JROTC. The spokesperson said schools may require parental permission to participate in certain JROTC activities, such as drills or archery.
Students object to enrollment by default
The Army cites data showing that JROTC students nationwide outperform their peers academically and are less likely to exhibit “indiscipline.” However, research is mixed on whether and to what degree participation in JROTC is linked to improved student outcomes.
Students interviewed for the OIG report had divergent opinions. Investigators said they heard “many many positive comments” but also some concerns.
One student said she objected to JROTC because its “uniforms, drills and pledges violate her religious beliefs as a Jehovah’s Witness.”
“The school’s resolution was that the student remained in JROTC but did not wear a uniform, participate in drills or say a pledge,“ the OIG found.
But the main concern among students was that they wanted to have the choice of participating and some would have preferred PE.
“I liked it,” one student said, “but in the beginning I didn’t like being forced to have the class … JROTC is not for everyone. It should not be forced on people.”
District to require PE as option for all students
In response to recommendations from the OIG, CPS said it would notify principals during a training session this month that “they must offer physical education as a course offering to all students,” according to the OIG’s report. CPS said it would stress to principals “the importance of voluntary enrollment” and not using JROTC as a PE replacement.
The district also told the OIG it would implement an “auditing/monitoring process this fall” to ensure students with disabilities are not overenrolled in JROTC programs.
Additionally, CPS addressed the OIG’s finding that military instructors’ salaries differed from the teacher’s union pay schedule, unlike in some other districts, resulting in higher instructor salaries. The district said it would implement a new pay scale for military instructors as of July 1.
Finally, the district said it planned to implement “corrective measures up to and including the removal of the JROTC program” at schools that failed to meet the minimum enrollment thresholds required by law to maintain the programs, which is 10% of the student body or 100 students, whichever is less. The OIG identified six such schools.
One principal told the OIG the school enrolled freshmen in JROTC rather than PE one year in an attempt to “save” the program, which had seen declining enrollment.
Although total JROTC enrollment in CPS decreased by about 500 students, or 7%, from last year, automatic enrollment of freshmen has continued this year at five high schools — Bowen, Fenger, Manley, Michelle Clark and Spry Community Links — where all or nearly all freshmen are enrolled in JROTC, according to CPS data obtained through a public records request.
Freshman enrollment in the program has decreased to varying degrees this year at five other schools identified by Chalkbeat as having previously had automatic enrollment. The sharpest decline occurred at King, which went from 100% of freshmen in JROTC last school year to just 22% this school year.
This year, far fewer freshmen at King are seen in their military-issued JROTC uniforms, which must be worn once a week, said a King teacher who requested anonymity.
“No one complains about it this year because no one is in it unless they want to be,” the teacher said.
Johnson, the King LSC chair, said that during the school’s freshmen orientation in August, a school counselor announced to parents that students could opt out of JROTC. Some did so on the spot.
Alex Ruppenthal is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. He can be reached at Alex.Ruppenthal@gmail.com.