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Senators demand answers from Dept. of Defense after reports of JROTC instructor abuse

The Department of Defense logo is seen on the desk ahead of the press conference on January 14, 2020.
Anadolu Agency
Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
The Department of Defense logo is seen on the desk ahead of the press conference on January 14, 2020.

Four senators, including Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., are asking the Departments of Defense and Education for answers after a July report from the New York Times revealed a pattern of sexual misconduct among Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps (JROTC) instructors.

The Times report found at least 33 JROTC instructors who had been criminally charged with sexual misconduct involving high school students over a five year period, as well as other instructors who were accused of misconduct but never charged. While the Defense and Education Departments are supposed to have shared oversight over the JROTC program, the Times report showed little oversight over instructors and allegations against them.

The senators want to know how many reports the departments have received with allegations of instructors sexually abusing or harassing students and what kind of guidance and oversight they provide to schools on the instructor hiring process.

"The JROTC program can provide a significant benefit to students, but it is clear that students have suffered incredible harm because ED and DoD currently lack the necessary oversight to prevent it from becoming a hunting ground," they wrote in letters addressed to Gilbert Cisneros, the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona.

Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, have also signed onto the letters. And the House Oversight Committee sent similar questions to DoD officials last month.

The letter points out data from the Times report that shows that arrest rates for JROTC instructors are far higher than rates of other teacher-student sexual misconduct cases.

"These troubling data clearly reveal that this program may be at higher risk for abuse and needs enhanced oversight from the military services and DoD," the senators' letter says.

The senators also point out that many JROTC host schools are often located in areas that are economically disadvantaged, and have higher populations of people of color.

The questions from lawmakers come as all military branches are struggling with meeting their recruiting goals.

In a Wednesday Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Stephanie Miller, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for military personnel policy, responded to questions from Warren about the Times report.

"We completely agree that additional oversight is necessary," Miller said. "We also think that we need to take a hard look at our current background investigation process ... we need to look even beyond our traditional background investigation to see if there's other tools that we need to add to that, such as potentially social media checks."

Lt. Gen. Caroline Miller, the deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel and services of the U.S. Air Force, said there is "very little oversight" in the Air Force among JROTC programs.

"We're looking at putting Guard and reserve members into some of those programs to provide additional oversight," Miller said.

The senators have given the departments until Oct. 14 to respond to their questions.

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Deepa Shivaram is a multi-platform political reporter on NPR's Washington Desk.