Teens in the J.R.O.T.C. program of the military are sexually abused, and they say, “I felt trapped.”
Former students say that military veterans who taught J.R.O.T.C. classes in U.S. high schools pretended to be mentors but then used their power to control and abuse the students.
With the rifle skills she learned in the woods of Mississippi, Victoria Bauer had a way out of the trap of drugs and jobs that led nowhere. She decided that her future was in the Marines, and she had a plan for how to get there.
Ms. Bauer went up to Steve Hardin, a retired Navy intelligence officer who was in charge of the high school’s Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. This is a leadership program that the U.S. military sponsors at high schools all over the country. It was across the hall from Ms. Bauer’s freshman algebra class. She said that he welcomed her into the group and seemed interested in how her family, whose roots went back to the Four Winds Cherokee of Louisiana, had to move because of Hurricane Katrina.
Soon, her 45-year-old J.R.O.T.C. instructor was sending her messages late at night on Snapchat. He told her that if she wore a “small bikini” on the trip to their next competition out of state, it would “drive the guys crazy.” Then, one night in 2015, she told investigators that Mr. Hardin pushed his hand into her pants as he drove her home from rifle practice and pierced her with his fingers. She said this was the first of what she said were months of sexual assaults. Ms. Bauer, who was 15 at the time, was afraid that if she fought him, it would hurt her chances of moving up in the JROTC or getting a job in the military.
In an interview, Ms. Bauer said, “I showed with my body language that I didn’t want it.” “I didn’t think I had any other choice.”
The J.R.O.T.C. program has been trying to teach U.S. military values to American teens for more than a hundred years. It has classes in thousands of public high schools that teach shooting, life skills, hierarchical discipline, and military history. The classes, which are usually offered as electives during the regular school day, are backed by school officials as a way to give direction and motivation to students who need it.
But a New York Times investigation, which looked at thousands of court documents, investigation files, and other records obtained through more than 150 requests for public disclosure, found that the program has been used over and over again by retired military officers to take advantage of their teenage students.
The Times found that at least 33 J.R.O.T.C. instructors have been criminally charged with sexual misconduct involving students in the last five years. This is a much higher rate than the rate of high school teachers in civilian schools that The Times looked at. Many others have been accused of wrongdoing, but no charges have ever been brought.
The J.R.O.T.C. is made up of senior military veterans who are certified by the military. However, they are sent to high school classrooms with little supervision and little training for the actual work of being a teacher. In many states, J.R.O.T.C. teachers do not have to have a college degree or a teaching certificate. Schools are supposed to keep an eye on the teachers and look into complaints, but it’s been hard for them to keep track of a program that runs mostly on the edges of their campuses.
Sexual assaults have happened in classrooms, supply closets, on field trips, and on late-night rides home, sometimes after teachers gave their students too much alcohol or drugs. One former student said her teacher told her that women in the military were expected to be submissive in the bedroom. A recent cadet in Tennessee said that her JROTC instructor told her he knew how to kill her without leaving a trace if she told anyone about their sexual encounters. In Missouri, a student said that her teacher made her kneel at his bedside with a gun to her head and blindfold on.