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Get the Military Out of Our Schools
by Jerry Sharkey
October 15, 2004
First Published in Socialist Worker

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[Hundreds of students, parents, teachers and community members last week packed into what had been billed as a “community forum” to protest the planned invasion of Senn High School by the U.S. military. City officials want to open a “naval academy” in the north side high school, whose students are predominantly low-income. The academy run by the military within Senn would grab needed resources from other programs--and increase the influence of the armed forces in Chicago schools, where the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) is already a fixture. With the U.S. occupation of Iraq descending into crisis and the Pentagon having a harder time signing up reservists and regular army personnel alike, the federal government wants to use inner-city schools like Senn as a recruiting ground--making their fake promises of job training and pressuring students to sign on the dotted line. But they didn’t expect the response they got in Chicago. Hundreds of students made it impossible for the military to present their sales job for the naval academy. “We need to learn how to read and write, not how to shoot guns,” yelled one Senn sophomore. Here, Jesse Sharkey, a teacher at Senn and a Chicago Teachers Union delegate, talks about the fight against the military--and the experience of one of his students. -- Alan Maass, Socialist Worker]

We first began to realize something was wrong when teams of teams of men with suits and clipboards began walking through the halls of our high school during the first week of classes. We had heard that the U.S. Navy was planning to open a “Naval Academy” on Chicago’s North Side, but it never occurred to us that they would try to put it in our building. After all, we were already using our building!

Nonetheless, it became clear that the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) was in fact targeting our school after we crashed a meeting at the 48th ward alderman’s office--and discovered that CPS was planning a “community forum” at Senn to sell the idea.

In some ways, Senn High School is a pretty typical “inner-city” school. Ninety-two percent of our students are poor. We don’t have lots of resources, our building needs paint, and our students are not the ones who test into the fancy magnet programs.

But in other ways, our school is a remarkable community resource, with plenty of morale. Our students come from 70 nationalities, speak 57 different languages and still maintain a sense of unity and mutual respect. Senn students have performed 70,000 hours of community service over the past five years and have been recognized with a national service award. Senn has also developed some of the city’s most successful academic programs for at-risk kids.

So instead of waiting for the ax to fall, we began to fight back. We researched the effect that the military takeover would have on our school and community, and wrote fact sheets. We made flyers about our concerns and put up 3,500 of them, with another 500 in Spanish. We reached out and met with community organizations, launched a Web site, wrote press releases and organized to get people out to support us. On October 5, we brought about 700 people out to the CPS forum at our school.

The mood in the room was electric. Students had been preparing all week--they had written speeches, drawn dozens of handmade signs and brought along many of their parents. When CPS officials tried to show us a slick promotional video about the Navy ROTC program, the room rebelled. The entire audience stood up and turned its back to the presentation.

David Pickens, the deputy chief of staff for schools CEO Arne Duncan, glared at the angry crowd for the next five minutes in a dramatic standoff, while the heckling grew louder. Then someone in the audience started to chant “We say no,” and soon, the whole crowd was booming its opposition.

Pickens and his team promptly ran from the auditorium and left the school, leaving us to conduct a real community meeting.

It’s clear that Pickens and his crew will be back. The plan for Senn High School is part of a much larger agenda--an agenda to militarize much more of the public education system. Chicago currently has some 10,600 students enrolled in Junior ROTC programs--and the military plans to increase that number to 15,000 by 2007, according to Col. Rick Mills, who earns $115,000 as CPS’s ROTC director.

Junior ROTC enrolls students as young as 11. Members wear uniforms, drill with fake rifles, learn about military history and are encouraged to continue with a military career.

This outcome isn’t left to chance. An Army memo directs JROTC staff to “actively assist cadets who want to enlist in the military [and] emphasize service in the U.S. Army; facilitate recruiter access to cadets in JROTC program and to the entire student body;...[and] work closely with high school guidance counselors to sell the Army story.”

At the exact time when the U.S. military is running short of troops for its bloody occupation for oil and empire in Iraq, they are targeting students at home--not, of course, students in the wealthy, predominantly white suburban schools outside Chicago, but inner-city students at schools like Senn.

Preying on high school students

IN THE fall of 2002, Garrett Jones was a high school junior, just coming off a difficult two years and feeling like he needed to turn his life around.

And the armed forces were right there to prey on him. “Military recruiters were always around, calling me, coming by my house,” Garrett told Socialist Worker. “They would call me and say, why don’t you come down [to the recruiting office]?”

Eventually, Jones did go by the recruiting office, located across the street from Chicago’s largest high school, Lane Tech. Once inside, Garrett received a high-pressure sales job. “There were like four guys there, and they were all telling me how great it was, what an opportunity it was,” Jones recounted. “They were saying, ‘Just sign it,’ but I asked what would happen if I wanted to go to college?” Garrett said the recruiter told him, “Oh yeah, you can get out of this.” So he signed.

A year-and-a-half later, Garrett had done a lot of growing up. He started on the Senn football team his senior year, improved his grades and been accepted into Southern Illinois University (SIU), where he had plans to attend in the fall.

Early in July, he woke up to a knock on his door. His parents were at work. Garrett says that he was greeted by an army recruiter and two police officers. “They had been calling me for weeks, saying I had to come enroll, but I kept telling them, ‘I’m going to school,’” he said. “Now they said, ‘If you don’t come with us right now, you are going to jail.’”

Garrett packed a few things and was taken to a hotel in the suburbs. The next morning, he was flown to basic training in Missouri, and it was only then that he was able to phone home.

Garrett found basic training to be hellish and full of racism. “One officer yelled at me, ‘You’re not in Chicago anymore, you’re not a drug dealer anymore,’” he recounted. Garrett also suffered a medical condition--severe migraines--that should have kept him out of the military. It wasn’t until he collapsed and spent five days in the hospital that he was released.

Garrett spent two months fighting to get out of the service, during which time he lost his job and his place in SIU’s freshman class. “It messed up the whole course of my life,” he said.

But he wants his story to serve as a warning to other young men and women who are thinking about signing up. “Read what you sign,” Garrett warns, “and don’t believe what they say.”

Jesse Sharkey teaches at Senn High School in Chicago, and is a delegate of the Chicago Teachers Union. This article first appeared in Socialist Worker.