Sixty instructors in the Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps have been accused of sexual misconduct against high school cadets in the last five years, according to a congressional report released Wednesday.
Of those, allegations against 58 instructors were substantiated by local law enforcement or school officials, according to the report from the House Oversight Committee's majority staff, which was released ahead of a hearing on the JROTC program Wednesday morning.
The committee findings come after The New York Times reported earlier this year that at least 33 JROTC instructors had been criminally charged with sexual crimes in the past five years. The committee launched an investigation because of the Times report.
Earlier this month, the Defense Department reported to lawmakers that the number of allegations of sexual assault, harassment and other sexual misconduct was nearly double what had previously been made public.
"What we have learned from the department is truly alarming," Oversight Committee Chair Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., said at the hearing. "Our investigation has exposed that a lack of Pentagon oversight appears to have enabled the predatory behavior of some of the JROTC instructors. Any allegation of sexual assault, abuse or harassment in this program is one too many, and needs to be addressed."
The JROTC program is a partnership between the Defense Department, the military branches and high schools around the country meant to instill leadership skills and citizenship values in teenagers, with more than 3,000 units nationally. Unlike the college-level ROTC program, there is no requirement to serve in the military after JROTC, but many participants do go on to join the military or join the college program -- a potentially important pipeline to military service at a time when the armed forces are struggling to recruit young people.
The connection between recruitment issues and scandals such as sexual abuse in JROTC is one several lawmakers made at Wednesday's hearing.
"The United States military, the finest volunteer fighting force in the world, is currently grappling with an unprecedented recruitment and retention challenge," Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., chairman of the Oversight Committee's national security subcommittee, said in his opening statement. "This is driven, at least in part, by a lack of trust among our nation's young men and women and their families that the United States military will protect them from unnecessary physical and psychological harm both at home and when deployed overseas."
JROTC instructors are mostly retired officers, though it is possible for active-duty officers to be assigned to the program. The instructors are employees of the high school, meaning allegations of misconduct are investigated by local law enforcement or the schools rather than the military. But federal law calls for Defense Department oversight of the program.
Of the allegations of sexual misconduct uncovered by the committee, most came from the Army's JROTC program. The Army's program saw allegations against 26 instructors, all but one of which were substantiated. Of the substantiated allegations, 24 instructors were decertified and one died by suicide, according to the report.
The Marine Corps' JROTC program had allegations against 16 instructors, all of which were substantiated. One of the instructors who had been accused also died by suicide, and the rest were decertified.
The Navy's program had allegations against 11 instructors, all but one of which were substantiated, and the Air Force had seven, all of which were substantiated. All of the instructors with substantiated allegations were decertified.
The committee also found the services do not consistently follow Pentagon policy to conduct annual oversight of their JROTC units. Specifically, the committee found the Army conducts accreditation inspections annually for just one-third of its units, the Navy inspects its units at least once every other school year, the Air Force conducts virtual assessments annually and in-person ones about every three years, and the Marines conduct in-person visits every two years.
In testimony before the House Oversight Committee's national security subcommittee Wednesday, officials from the Pentagon and the departments of the Army, Air Force and Navy called any allegation of sexual misconduct unacceptable and vowed to improve oversight of JROTC.
"There is no place, no justification for the misconduct that has taken place within the JROTC program," said Thomas Constable, the acting assistant secretary of defense for manpower and reserve affairs. "These incidents are directly opposed to our core values, and in no way reflect the military training and education that JROTC instructors received while serving in uniform. The Department of Defense has an unwavering commitment to the safety and well-being of all JROTC participants and to holding personnel accountable for any misconduct."
But the officials also struggled to answer lawmakers' questions about specific ways they will improve accountability or vetting of instructors. For example, asked by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., about how the Army will improve background checks for new instructors, Acting Assistant Secretary of the Army for Manpower and Reserve Affairs Yvette Bourcicot pointed to plans to have instructors annually self-attest to their duty to uphold Army values.
"That's not vetting," Wasserman Schultz shot back.
The military's response left lawmakers furious.
Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-Wis., ranking member of the subcommittee, concluded the hearing by saying he was "disappointed" the military showed a "lack of sense of urgency" to tackle the issue.
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., a subcommittee member who is also the chair of the House Armed Services Committee's personnel subcommittee, slammed the military for failing to act until The New York Times' report, advocated for stripping pensions from the instructors with substantiated allegations and expressed concern that the numbers are far greater than even the committee uncovered since sexual abuse survivors are often not comfortable reporting they were attacked.
"I can't begin to think how many young people are impacted," she said. "In some respects, I feel we should just shut down this program until you can get it right. I don't want another kid to be sexually harassed or assaulted; that will stay with them the rest of their lives. You've known about this and done nothing about it since 2017, that we know of."
-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.