Congressional investigators have opened a review of sexual misconduct in the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program of the U.S. military in the wake of reports that dozens of teenage girls had been abused at the hands of their instructors.
In a letter sent on Monday to military leaders, including Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III, the lawmakers said they were seeking information on how many misconduct reports had been received, how they had been investigated and how often the military inspected school J.R.O.T.C. programs.
They said that instructors in the J.R.O.T.C. program, which provides training in leadership, marksmanship and civic responsibility in about 3,500 high schools around the country, served as trusted representatives of the military in their local communities.
“Every incident of sexual abuse or harassment committed by a J.R.O.T.C. instructor is a betrayal of that trust,” wrote Representative Carolyn Maloney, the chairwoman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, and Representative Stephen Lynch, who chairs the panel’s subcommittee on national security.
The New York Times reported last month that J.R.O.T.C. programs had repeatedly become a place where decorated veterans — retired as officers or noncommissioned officers — preyed on teenage students. The Times identified, over a five-year period, at least 33 J.R.O.T.C. instructors who had been criminally charged with sexual misconduct involving students, along with many others who were accused of misconduct but never charged.
Many victims said they had turned to J.R.O.T.C. in high school for stability in their lives or as a pathway to military service, only to find that instructors exploited their position to take advantage of the students.
Founded more than a century ago, J.R.O.T.C. has expanded to enroll hundreds of thousands of students each year. Cadets are provided instruction in military ranks and procedures, as well as in more general topics such as public speaking and financial planning.
J.R.O.T.C. leaders point to research indicating that the program has had a positive effect on school attendance and graduation rates, and many cadets praise the program for providing vital lessons and experiences during formative years.
But The Times found that the instructors operated with weak oversight. While they were certified by individual branches of the military to take the jobs in schools, the military overseers did little to investigate problems or monitor the conduct of instructors, leaving that to the schools. The program often operates on the fringes of school campuses, with extracurricular activities after school hours or away from campus that are difficult for school administrators to monitor.
In several cases identified by The Times, instructors who were criminally charged with misconduct had already been the subject of prior complaints.
Along with requests for data and information, the lawmakers asked that the Department of Defense provide a briefing to the committee’s staff by the end of this month.
“While all J.R.O.T.C. instructors are required to complete a D.O.D. background investigation and be certified by state or local education authorities, we remain concerned that D.O.D. and the military services lack an effective means to monitor the actions of J.R.O.T.C. instructors and ensure the safety and well-being of cadets,” the lawmakers wrote. “Without sufficient oversight mechanisms in place, inappropriate behavior may continue undetected.”
Military branches have been struggling to meet their recruiting goals, and Pentagon leaders have seen value in the high school program as a pipeline to enlistment. The U.S. Army Cadet Command found that students from high schools with J.R.O.T.C. programs were more than twice as likely to enlist after graduation.
As the military works to attract qualified recruits, the lawmakers said, the services must “redouble their efforts to promote the safety, well-being and academic and personal growth of our country’s next generation of leaders.”