At Hempstead High School, close to 60% of cadets in the JROTC program are women. NewsdayTV’s Steve Langford reports. Credit: Newsday/Kendall Rodriguez

Walking into class in her blue military uniform and polished black shoes, Alisha Arshad may not look like the typical JROTC cadet, but at Brentwood High School, she is.

The senior is the student-commander of the school's JROTC, or Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps, where 66% of the cadets — 107 of 161 — are female, school officials said. That exceeds the national average for females, which stands at about 40%, according to websites for the various military branches.

It's like that elsewhere on Long Island, too: Females have the majority in JROTC programs, including in Freeport (75% female), Wyandanch (62%), Hempstead (57%) and Riverhead (52%), according to instructors.

The JROTC instructors say that while these programs have an especially high amount of females, their presence has been growing for years. Females, they say, are generally more mature than males, so they appreciate the program's emphasis on leadership and character.

Female cadets say the program fills a gap in their high school education. No course specifically teaches leadership, but they say these classes provide just that.

"This is very 'women empowerment,' " said Arshad, 17, who is in her third year of JROTC. "Women have chances to take bigger roles and do so many great things."

As the group commander at Brentwood Air Force JROTC, Arshad oversees the training for marching drills and color guard duties, which the group performs at the local Memorial Day parade and other community events. She plans and runs meetings where cadets decide which community activities to engage in and what fundraising they'll do.

While Arshad said she appreciates the coursework in military history and air and space fundamentals, she really enjoys the emphasis on leadership and life skills. 

"This is advice I'll be using for my lifetime," she said.

JROTC is considered among the largest youth development programs in the United States, with more than 500,000 participating students, according to a 2017 RAND study on its demographics. While the JROTC was created in 1916, it wasn't until more than 50 years later, in 1972, that females were permitted to participate. 

 Five of the military branches maintain JROTC programs across the country, which share costs between the military branches and the high schools that have programs. The instructors are most often retired from the military. They are hired by the school district and generally don't teach other subjects.

On Long Island, a vast majority of high schools don't have JROTC. There are only about a dozen programs in the 100-plus high schools in the Island's 124 districts. Several hundred high schoolers participate in JROTC here.

Classes occur each day during the school year, and they are a voluntary elective that offers credit toward graduation. Participants wear their dress uniforms to school about one day a week. They are not required to serve in the military after graduation, though JROTC long has been considered a recruitment tool, said Charles Goldman, a RAND senior economist who worked on the study.

Those cadets who complete the high school coursework can enter the military at a higher rank than other civilians, which means more money and responsibility. Students not entering the military can qualify for various college scholarships.

"Clearly there's been an increase" in female participants, Goldman said. "It is not as male-dominated as in the decades before."

But even Goldman was surprised by the higher-than-average participation in some Island schools. The increasing female participation may coincide with the changing nature of warfare, in which there's increasing use of computers and technology that don't require a man's physical strength, he said.

Island instructors say the female participation cuts against dated stereotypes about JROTC. Many Island programs don't teach shooting or fighting skills.

"The females are not taking a back seat to anyone. They see something they want and they take it," said Kenneth Woods, who runs the Army JROTC at Hempstead High School.

Christian Gaskill, who runs the Navy JROTC program at Freeport High School, said 110 of the 147 cadets are female, including the top leadership positions.

"Girls do tend to be more mature, and I think that draws them to the program," Gaskill said. He said barely 6% of the Freeport cadets, male or female, go into the military. 

Arshad, the Brentwood senior, said she wants to pursue a career in business administration, but not in the military.

Sukim Greene, a senior who is a student leader of the Navy JROTC at Freeport High School, said she wants to be a dermatologist. 

"JROTC does keep you grounded," said Greene, 17. "You learn how to act right in the hallways. You learn discipline."

That sense of self-discipline helps, especially on those occasions when other students give cadets grief over the way they look, she said.

"Some make fun of us. I think it's silly," Greene said. "I don't pay attention."

While JROTC programs stress leadership and life skills, they do so within a military-style framework. There are command structures, promotions and inspections.

Several cadets said they enjoy the pageantry that comes with the sharp uniforms and drills, as well as the decorum that's expected. Cadets are expected to treat others with respect, comport themselves with dignity, and in general, have a big heart toward other people, they say.

"This class has completely changed my life," said Victoria Arm, 17, a senior who serves as the executive officer of the Riverhead High School Navy JROTC. "The entire program is learning to work with people. It teaches you to be in a unit, and how to lead and how to follow. … To be a good leader, you need to be a good follower."

Several of the JROTC programs are in low-income communities where students can face more challenges. Instructors talk about the close relationship they form with students. Unlike instructors in other subjects, the school JROTC teacher sees their students during every year of their high school experience, and they become mentors. 

Some troubled students are offered the program, but they can refuse, they said.

Jeff Zanelotti, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who leads the Army JROTC at Wyandanch High School, said he focuses on teaching students to make the right decisions.

"We had one student, he was not the most disciplined academically," Zanelotti said. "School was not necessarily his focus."

The student joined JROTC, graduated and enlisted in the Army. 

"He thanks us for saving his life," Zanelotti said.

JROTC is not without its controversies and critics. In May, the federal Government Accountability Office launched a review of JROTC following allegations of sexual misconduct by instructors. The review came in the wake of a 2022 New York Times investigation that found at least 33 JROTC instructors nationwide had been charged in criminal cases involving sexual misconduct in the prior five years. 

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) introduced legislation in June called the Junior Reserve Officer Training (JROTC) Safety Act of 2023 to better protect JROTC cadets from sexual assault, increasing oversight of the agencies charged with running the programs.

In addition, some people criticize the program as promoting military training, which they say has no place in public school.

Roosevelt schools Superintendent Deborah Wortham disagrees. Schools in general must apply to a branch of the service to start a JROTC program, and she said she's happy the high school has one.

"It builds character, that's what JROTC does, and it creates good citizens," Wortham said. "I wouldn't start any assembly without the [Army JROTC] color guard. It sets the tone for who we are."

She credits much of the program's success to its instructor, Command Sgt. Maj. Althea Robinson-Haddo, especially in terms of bringing in more females.

This year, Roosevelt's program has 76 females out of the 151 cadets, with the number of females inching out the number of males, Robinson-Haddo said.

"I believe [the females] see me as a role model. … I'm their confidant. We talk about their personal issues," Robinson-Haddo said. "I teach them how to balance a checkbook, first aid, how to dress and look presentable."

Gabriela Gamez Lopez, a junior who serves as Roosevelt's battalion commander, said she appreciates the lessons, and that the females in the group are spreading the word.

"I've learned how to be a good leader, to put everyone before myself," said Gamez Lopez, 16. "I've learned to take opinions from them. I ask, 'Do you guys think I'm doing a good job?' "

Walking into class in her blue military uniform and polished black shoes, Alisha Arshad may not look like the typical JROTC cadet, but at Brentwood High School, she is.

The senior is the student-commander of the school's JROTC, or Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps, where 66% of the cadets — 107 of 161 — are female, school officials said. That exceeds the national average for females, which stands at about 40%, according to websites for the various military branches.

It's like that elsewhere on Long Island, too: Females have the majority in JROTC programs, including in Freeport (75% female), Wyandanch (62%), Hempstead (57%) and Riverhead (52%), according to instructors.

The JROTC instructors say that while these programs have an especially high amount of females, their presence has been growing for years. Females, they say, are generally more mature than males, so they appreciate the program's emphasis on leadership and character.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Females have become the majority in several Long Island programs for Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps, including in Freeport (75% female), Wyandanch (62%), Hempstead (57%) and Riverhead (52%).
  • These schools far exceed the national average for females in these programs, which stands at about 40%.
  • Island instructors say that the rise of females in the JROTC, while nothing new, generally reflects the increasing number of leadership opportunities for women, in and out of the military. 

Female cadets say the program fills a gap in their high school education. No course specifically teaches leadership, but they say these classes provide just that.

"This is very 'women empowerment,' " said Arshad, 17, who is in her third year of JROTC. "Women have chances to take bigger roles and do so many great things."

As the group commander at Brentwood Air Force JROTC, Arshad oversees the training for marching drills and color guard duties, which the group performs at the local Memorial Day parade and other community events. She plans and runs meetings where cadets decide which community activities to engage in and what fundraising they'll do.

Alisha Arshad, right, student-commander of the JROTC at Brentwood High...

Alisha Arshad, right, student-commander of the JROTC at Brentwood High School, with Deputy Group Commander Cadet Major Gabrielle Cabral.

  Credit: Dawn McCormick

While Arshad said she appreciates the coursework in military history and air and space fundamentals, she really enjoys the emphasis on leadership and life skills. 

"This is advice I'll be using for my lifetime," she said.

Voluntary elective toward graduation

JROTC is considered among the largest youth development programs in the United States, with more than 500,000 participating students, according to a 2017 RAND study on its demographics. While the JROTC was created in 1916, it wasn't until more than 50 years later, in 1972, that females were permitted to participate. 

 Five of the military branches maintain JROTC programs across the country, which share costs between the military branches and the high schools that have programs. The instructors are most often retired from the military. They are hired by the school district and generally don't teach other subjects.

Commander Wayne Hanna leads a JROTC class at Brentwood High...

Commander Wayne Hanna leads a JROTC class at Brentwood High School. Credit: Dawn McCormick

On Long Island, a vast majority of high schools don't have JROTC. There are only about a dozen programs in the 100-plus high schools in the Island's 124 districts. Several hundred high schoolers participate in JROTC here.

Classes occur each day during the school year, and they are a voluntary elective that offers credit toward graduation. Participants wear their dress uniforms to school about one day a week. They are not required to serve in the military after graduation, though JROTC long has been considered a recruitment tool, said Charles Goldman, a RAND senior economist who worked on the study.

Those cadets who complete the high school coursework can enter the military at a higher rank than other civilians, which means more money and responsibility. Students not entering the military can qualify for various college scholarships.

"Clearly there's been an increase" in female participants, Goldman said. "It is not as male-dominated as in the decades before."

But even Goldman was surprised by the higher-than-average participation in some Island schools. The increasing female participation may coincide with the changing nature of warfare, in which there's increasing use of computers and technology that don't require a man's physical strength, he said.

Island instructors say the female participation cuts against dated stereotypes about JROTC. Many Island programs don't teach shooting or fighting skills.

"The females are not taking a back seat to anyone. They see something they want and they take it," said Kenneth Woods, who runs the Army JROTC at Hempstead High School.

Christian Gaskill, who runs the Navy JROTC program at Freeport High School, said 110 of the 147 cadets are female, including the top leadership positions.

"Girls do tend to be more mature, and I think that draws them to the program," Gaskill said. He said barely 6% of the Freeport cadets, male or female, go into the military. 

Arshad, the Brentwood senior, said she wants to pursue a career in business administration, but not in the military.

Sukim Greene, a senior who is a student leader of the Navy JROTC at Freeport High School, said she wants to be a dermatologist. 

"JROTC does keep you grounded," said Greene, 17. "You learn how to act right in the hallways. You learn discipline."

That sense of self-discipline helps, especially on those occasions when other students give cadets grief over the way they look, she said.

"Some make fun of us. I think it's silly," Greene said. "I don't pay attention."

While JROTC programs stress leadership and life skills, they do so within a military-style framework. There are command structures, promotions and inspections.

Several cadets said they enjoy the pageantry that comes with the sharp uniforms and drills, as well as the decorum that's expected. Cadets are expected to treat others with respect, comport themselves with dignity, and in general, have a big heart toward other people, they say.

Lt. Col. Leslie Alas, second from left, and fellow cadets...

Lt. Col. Leslie Alas, second from left, and fellow cadets drill at Hempstead High School. Credit: Howard Schnapp

"This class has completely changed my life," said Victoria Arm, 17, a senior who serves as the executive officer of the Riverhead High School Navy JROTC. "The entire program is learning to work with people. It teaches you to be in a unit, and how to lead and how to follow. … To be a good leader, you need to be a good follower."

Several of the JROTC programs are in low-income communities where students can face more challenges. Instructors talk about the close relationship they form with students. Unlike instructors in other subjects, the school JROTC teacher sees their students during every year of their high school experience, and they become mentors. 

Some troubled students are offered the program, but they can refuse, they said.

Jeff Zanelotti, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who leads the Army JROTC at Wyandanch High School, said he focuses on teaching students to make the right decisions.

"We had one student, he was not the most disciplined academically," Zanelotti said. "School was not necessarily his focus."

The student joined JROTC, graduated and enlisted in the Army. 

"He thanks us for saving his life," Zanelotti said.

JROTC not without controversies

JROTC is not without its controversies and critics. In May, the federal Government Accountability Office launched a review of JROTC following allegations of sexual misconduct by instructors. The review came in the wake of a 2022 New York Times investigation that found at least 33 JROTC instructors nationwide had been charged in criminal cases involving sexual misconduct in the prior five years. 

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) introduced legislation in June called the Junior Reserve Officer Training (JROTC) Safety Act of 2023 to better protect JROTC cadets from sexual assault, increasing oversight of the agencies charged with running the programs.

In addition, some people criticize the program as promoting military training, which they say has no place in public school.

Roosevelt schools Superintendent Deborah Wortham disagrees. Schools in general must apply to a branch of the service to start a JROTC program, and she said she's happy the high school has one.

"It builds character, that's what JROTC does, and it creates good citizens," Wortham said. "I wouldn't start any assembly without the [Army JROTC] color guard. It sets the tone for who we are."

She credits much of the program's success to its instructor, Command Sgt. Maj. Althea Robinson-Haddo, especially in terms of bringing in more females.

This year, Roosevelt's program has 76 females out of the 151 cadets, with the number of females inching out the number of males, Robinson-Haddo said.

"I believe [the females] see me as a role model. … I'm their confidant. We talk about their personal issues," Robinson-Haddo said. "I teach them how to balance a checkbook, first aid, how to dress and look presentable."

Gabriela Gamez Lopez, a junior who serves as Roosevelt's battalion commander, said she appreciates the lessons, and that the females in the group are spreading the word.

"I've learned how to be a good leader, to put everyone before myself," said Gamez Lopez, 16. "I've learned to take opinions from them. I ask, 'Do you guys think I'm doing a good job?' "

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