Opponents of ROTC up in arms about military presence in schools
Opponents of ROTC up in arms about military presence in schoolsOnce a week, gunshots ring out within blocks of Shawnee Mission North High School. The alarm that may be felt from hearing those sounds is tempered by the discovery that what is heard comes from pellet guns being fired as part of the school-sanctioned junior ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) training. However, for one group of students, this disclosure offers little reassurance.
“This class is desensitizing kids to weapons, teaching them how to shoot, and making them more effective marksmen,” says Emiliano Huet-Vaughn, a junior at Shawnee Mission North. “Students are getting a positive look at weapons in the schools. They’re seeing that weapons are allowed in the school, and I think that weapons should be portrayed in a totally negative light, especially in a school setting. It’s inappropriate to teach kids how to shoot, and I think that it’s irresponsible and hypocritical of our schools to engage in these programs.”
At a February school board meeting, Huet-Vaughn and classmate Benjamin Seferovich asked for changes in the curriculum of the junior ROTC classes, including the removal of the rifle team, which practices at a shooting range near the school once a week after school, and the drill team, for which students store deactivated rifles in their lockers. The drill team, which meets before school at 6 a.m., has won scores of trophies in competitions, which might explain what Huet-Vaughn describes as a staunch defense of the status quo from the Shawnee Mission School Board.
After failing to receive direct answers to their questions, Huet-Vaughn and Seferovich decided future appeals to the board would be a waste of energy. In comparison, the response from the public and the press was instant and intense. An editorial in The Kansas City Star criticized “sloppy thinking by ROTC opponents,” claiming “the reason so many self-described peace activists enjoy so little credibility is that they fail to make the critical distinctions that are blindly obvious to everyone else.” The writer of a letter to the editor of Shawnee Mission North’s school newspaper suggested that teaching students more about the guns will make them less likely to kill someone, because knowledge creates safety.
“That doesn’t sound like sound reasoning to me,” Huet-Vaughn says. “Teaching someone respect for a weapon does not create respect for human life. That’s not to say that everyone in the ROTC class is going to be a killer, but I think that the possibility exists. Where are these students getting their education from? People from the military. What does the military constantly use weapons for? Whether it’s right or wrong, they constantly use them to kill. If people don’t want weapons in their schools, then I don’t see how they can make an exception for this.”
In a column titled “A Higher Standard or a Double One?” Kansas City Star writer Mike Hendricks focused on the contradiction inherent between the existence of the ROTC’s weapon-wielding programs and the school district’s zero-tolerance weapon policies, which resulted in the expulsion of a Shawnee Mission East student who left a butterfly knife in his car, which was parked in the school lot. Though they appreciated the support, some of the students working with Huet-Vaughn to circulate a petition proposing changes in the ROTC curriculum felt that the article’s focus was misplaced.
“It was all about the zero-tolerance policy, and it isn’t really one of our main objectives to eliminate that policy,” says one of these students, who preferred to remain anonymous. “Our point is that we don’t want anyone bringing weapons into school — not that if ROTC can have rifles, everyone else should be able to bring in weapons as well.”
Even if Hendricks missed the mark about the organization’s aims, at least he addressed a relevant issue. Many criticisms of Huet-Vaughn’s opposition to ROTC degenerate into slanderous references to his mother, Yolanda Huet-Vaughn, who was jailed for desertion when she refused to serve with her medical unit in the Persian Gulf War. In a letter to the editor printed in The Kansas City Star, Joseph M. Quin III wrote: “I can see the seed hasn’t fallen too far from the tree. Your mother betrayed her fellow soldiers during the Gulf War.”
“This situation has nothing to do with her at all,” Huet-Vaughn says. “My mother is incredibly busy. She doesn’t have time for this. I think in Shawnee Mission there’s a lot of hostility towards her because people have been told she’s a deserter or they’ve been falsely informed that she scammed the military out of lots of money, and people use that in an attempt to discredit us right away before listening to our arguments.”
Huet-Vaughn’s arguments aren’t all centered on weapons-related issues. The ROTC features a classroom component as well as fitness elements and a weekly uniform inspection, and Huet-Vaughn objects to the content of the Naval Science textbooks that are used.
“They have no mention whatsoever of any war crimes by our military,” he says. “We take the position that our military’s done good things but it’s also done bad things, and those should be mentioned in the class. If they’re claiming they’re about military history, they should mention something that is unfortunately a really big part of our military history: human rights abuses and war crimes and such. There’s also no mention of the racism that’s a current problem, and there’s no mention of the antigay sentiment, and there are one or two paragraphs on sexism, but they’re not addressing it as a large problem. We’d also like some mention on how veterans continually seem to be getting screwed, with such a disproportionate amount of homeless men being veterans. I think that if these kids are considering a military career, they should be given all the facts.”
Supporters of the program claim that the ROTC classes, like most electives, are not necessarily career-oriented but rather provide exposure to experiences outside the core curriculum. “It’s just like music or debate,” says Shelley Bartkoski, director of communications for the Shawnee Mission School District. “Students also see it as an excellent leadership opportunity.”
The leadership component of the class is questionable, Huet-Vaughn says, referring to quotes that he and his companions discovered in the textbooks and subsequently posted on fliers they handed out.
“What we found in the chapter titled ‘leadership’ was not in line with what we consider leadership,” Huet-Vaughn says. “‘Followership’ is the first subheading in the chapter, and then there’s quotes such as ‘The key to being an effective leader is being an effective follower,’ ‘A good follower obeys all commands given by those higher in the chain of command,’ and ‘Among the traits of a good follower, loyalty is at the top of the list. This means loyalty to those above us in the chain of command, whether or not we agree with them.’ These are all highly objectionable points.”
Huet-Vaughn acknowledges that discipline is a necessary component of military life and that the ROTC program helps provide it, but he doesn’t agree that it follows that the classes should continue on their current course.
“Admittedly, I think there are things about the program that are good, and I think that it has helped people in some cases,” he says. “I don’t deny that. There’s also lots of challenging classes and extracurricular activities that could serve a similar purpose.”
John Krueger, principal at Shawnee Mission North High School, says the discipline instilled by the ROTC classes has a unique effect on students.
“One of the biggest benefits that I see is that students who have been through the program seem to mature much faster because of all the discipline and self-discipline that’s involved,” he says. “Certainly there are equally mature students that didn’t go through the program, but as a whole the ROTC students seem to be more mature.”
Krueger has stated publicly that protests such as the one staged by Huet-Vaughn and those who support him are examples of “what a democracy is all about.”
“I firmly believe that,” he says. “This is a democracy, and we all have First Amendment rights. I guess I’m a bit of a flag waver, but for democracy to work, people have to take the time to question. Also, I’m an educator, and I know that when people stop asking questions, the system goes down the tubes. You can agree or disagree with me or with Emiliano and Ben, but you can never take away the right for them to ask questions. If I wanted to live in Iraq, I’d live in Iraq.”
Although Huet-Vaughn says he appreciates the open forum Krueger provides, he questions the democratic structure of a class that he says is focused on followership. “That doesn’t seem like something that is in support of democracy, when you’ve been told to get your orders from someone else and follow them whether or not you agree with them,” he says. “Since I’ve been in school, even in math classes, I’ve heard people complain: ‘This is so pointless. We’re never going to use any of this.’ And the teachers’ response is always, ‘This will teach you problem-solving and how to develop critical thinking.’ Judged on the stuff that I’ve seen and heard about the class and also the text that I’ve read, it (ROTC) doesn’t promote critical thinking or democratic values.”
Krueger says a generation gap might account for the discrepancy between his perception of the classes and that of Huet-Vaughn. After giving the program a close inspection following Huet-Vaughn and Seferovich’s comments at the school board meeting, which he says were the first complaints he’d heard, Krueger says he’s seen nothing that would justify drastic changes.
“There’s room for improvement in any program,” he says. “We could tweak the English or computer science classes and improve those as well. But I was inspired to take a look at these classes because of this situation, and I can say that I see nothing horribly wrong with the program. They’re a different age and they’ve had different experiences, so different strokes for different folks. But whether you’re 18 or 80, or even younger or older than that, you should have the same rights, privileges, and opportunities to stand up and protest when you think something is inappropriate that anybody else does. Maybe I don’t see the same thing when I look at the program, but I do see that these classes get people to think, just the same as English, math, or science.”
Although some students are lured to the program because of the promise of discipline or a lifelong dream of military service, others choose to participate primarily because they believe they will receive scholarship assistance. Because of this, ROTC protesters consider the organization to be a recruiting tool for the military. ROTC supporters dispute that this is necessarily the organization’s role. Lt. Commander Raymond Anderson, the instructor of the ROTC class at Shawnee Mission North, says only a small percentage of his students go on to enroll in the military.
“It’s hard to say in terms of percentages exactly, but in recent years the numbers have been four of 17 or two of 16 graduating seniors that joined the military right out of high school,” he says. “A few students have received significant military scholarships. I think it’s like any other class in that it’s just satisfying to watch the students mature as they move through the program.”
Huet-Vaughn says the fact that any of the students enrolled in the junior ROTC move on to the military is significant. “The question becomes: Why is the military the only government agency that’s brought into schools to recruit?” he asks. “And being that it’s a recruiting tool, you have to question the academic validity of the information they’re giving students. I wouldn’t trust Coca-Cola to come into a school and teach a class about what beverages to drink.”
As the next step in the protest process, Huet-Vaughn and 12 other students have circulated a petition that lists several of the above grievances. Huet-Vaughn says that the group has accumulated 350 signatures so far and is starting to seek support from outside of its own campus to boost this total to the target number of 1,000.
“What this petition is asking is pretty moderate,” he says. “We’re just saying we don’t want weapons in the schools, we don’t want kids to be taught how to shoot, and we’d like the text to be more balanced in order to provide students with a more accurate picture of the past and present state of the armed forces.”
Some of these changes, especially those that involve text revision, might be out of the school district’s hands. Huet-Vaughn says he was told that local control is limited with regards to ROTC classes. “They told us that the Navy is totally in charge of the curriculum and the textbooks and any changes have to be made by the Navy and not the local school district,” he says. “This somewhat inhibits any change we’d like even if the school board was to agree with us that some changes should be made.”
Overcoming such bureaucratic obstacles is just one of the many challenges that await Huet-Vaughn and the other students who make up the unnamed opposition organization. One of these protesters, who didn’t want her name used, claims to have already encountered angry opposition.
“There are lots of people who are very upset about this,” she says. “They’re spreading lies about what we’re doing, claiming that we’re vandalizing property and harassing people. Really, we’re handling the situation as diplomatically as possible.”
Huet-Vaughn says the majority of students he’s encountered agree with his position. “People recognize the hypocrisy,” he says. “It doesn’t seem that radical in my eyes to say that we don’t want weapons in the schools in the hands of students, and we don’t want them to be given a biased education that ignores pertinent information.”
Contact Andrew Miller at 816-218-6781 or firstname.lastname@example.org.