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VALLEY REPORT / SCHOOL LAYOFFS : Loss of ROTC Instructors Would Imperil Students' Leadership Skills, Officials Say


Plans to dismiss up to two-thirds of the 44 ROTC instructors in the Los Angeles Unified School District could leave thousands of students without training in leadership skills and self-discipline--qualities that keep them off the streets and lead to good jobs, according to program administrators.

The instructors received notices in March that their contracts would not be renewed for the coming school year because of the district's $350-million budget deficit. Reserve Officer Training Corps programs are among the elective subjects considered "non-essential" by the district and therefore targeted for cuts.

As a result, classes that include such topics as map reading, communication skills and first aid could be canceled, program administrators said. Military scholarships and training for military academies would be out of reach for most district students. Teen-agers who want to belong to a group might wear gang colors instead of military uniforms, they said.

"I don't know what I'd fill it with," said Jason Herbst, 16, an Air Force ROTC cadet at Canoga Park High School. "I just really like the military. It upsets me that they want to pull it out of the schools."

But unlike Senior ROTC programs at the college level, ROTC classes in high school are not designed to steer children into the military. They encourage students to become responsible, productive citizens, according to ROTC officials.

The proposed cuts, along with plans to lay off or transfer another 2,000 district employees, must be approved or rejected by the Los Angeles Board of Education by June 30, the last day of the present budget year.

They come at the same time that enrollment in district ROTC programs is at an all-time high of 3,000 students. More students are expected to sign up next year--if the program is still available--because of a resurgence in patriotism after the military victory in the Persian Gulf.

Nationwide, a record 130,000 high school students are enrolled in ROTC programs at 865 school districts, ROTC spokesman Jack Muhlenbeck said. Another 200 districts are on a waiting list to join, he said, in marked contrast to the program's low point following the Vietnam War.

In the worst case, all but five of the 22 ROTC programs at Los Angeles high school campuses would be eliminated next year, ROTC officials said. Only Army courses would be offered; Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps programs would be eliminated.

All five ROTC programs at district schools in the San Fernando Valley, serving about 500 students annually, would be cut, said Lt. Col. Tommy Thompson, director of the Army ROTC program at Van Nuys High School.

Program administrators say teen-agers of both sexes and parents increasingly recognize the value of instruction in a military-style setting that teaches discipline, morals and clean living. Students are required to wear uniforms to campus one day a week and must follow military rules of etiquette, such as saluting superiors and addressing them as "Sir"--sometimes making them the subject of jeers from classmates.

ROTC administrators stress that the uniforms and rules are not meant to push students into a military career, but to teach them a set of values.

"It gives them another reason to complete their high school educations," Muhlenbeck said. "If they want to enter the military, that's fine, but it's not designed to be a feeder."

ROTC officials said the dropout rate in the district is only 2% for cadets who continue in the program through their senior year. Overall, about 40% of students drop out of school between 10th and 12th grades, said Shel Erlich, district spokesman.

If the cuts are approved, many students might join gangs instead of the ROTC, Thompson said.

"We've had people that have joined our program and the gangs were trying to recruit them at the same time," said Thompson, who joined the district in 1980 after teaching in UCLA's ROTC program and serving two combat tours in Vietnam. "They came here instead of joining gangs. We are a deterrent to that sort of thing."

Col. Norman Andrie, the district's ROTC director, expressed optimism that the program would be saved.

"I can't foresee that a program such as ours would ever be eliminated," Andrie said. "We're making communities stronger. We need this type of program to bring along our young people so they can assume leadership positions later in life."

Andrie and other administrators said ROTC programs are cost-efficient because the school district pays only half the instructors' salaries; the rest is paid by the military. "They get two instructors for the price of one," said Lt. Col. Jason A. Chapel, one of two instructors in the Air Force ROTC program at Canoga Park High.

Textbooks, uniforms, classroom materials and transportation for field trips are also provided by the military.

At the same time, schools benefit by having ROTC cadets on campus, Chapel said.

ROTC provides color guards and uniformed escorts at school events, he said. Cadets raise the flag in the morning and lower it in the afternoon.

"I think it's a very shortsighted approach," Chapel said of the proposed cuts. "The schools are going to be very hard-pressed to find the same quality students."

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