When an instructor in the Junior ROTC program at Columbia's Atholton High School was arrested last month and charged with sexually abusing a 17-year old female student, school administrators were quick to note that it was the first such incident involving the Army-affiliated organization since it was established in Howard County a quarter-century ago.
While JROTC and school officials insist that such incidents are rare, the arrest of Charles Moore is one of eight reported sexual abuse cases nationally involving the Army's Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps instructors over the past five years. The Atholton case is prompting school officials in Howard to question whether adequate background checks are conducted before the JROTC instructors are allowed to work with students.
"We are working with the leaders of the JROTC program to see whether there is something we can do locally to make sure the relationship that is supposed to be happening between teachers and students is really clear to the individuals working in this program," schools spokeswoman Patti Caplan said. "We have to be diligent in making sure that those individuals understand what the ethics are here."
In another incident in the region, a former high school ROTC instructor was indicted last week on charges of sexually abusing a girl at a Halloween fundraiser last year. Jonathan Rossell, who worked at Delaware's Seaford High School, is accused of touching a 15-year-old high school student inappropriately at the October event on Maryland's Eastern Shore.
Moore's arrest comes about four months after Mark Jackson, a 43-year-old JROTC instructor at a Prince George's County high school, was sentenced to a year in jail for taking a 16-year-old to his apartment in Virginia and having sex.
While declining to comment specifically on Moore and other cases, the national director of the junior training corps, a 51-year-old retired Army sergeant from Bowie, said the allegations against him go "against everything that we teach and stand for."
"This is a frustrating and disappointing emotion that runs throughout the command," said Col. John Vanderbleek, who works in Virginia. "We condemn all forms of sexual misconduct by instructors. "Obviously, this is a mark against the Army. Even though the JROTC program is not an active recruiting program, it still is tied to the Army."
Personal relationships can develop
Prospective training leaders are screened by the Army, which then refers potential instructors to principals of individual schools to interview, he said. The school then hires the candidate of its choice.
Included in the Army's screening process is a requirement for the candidate to present evaluation reports from the most recent three years. Candidates must have been honorably discharged from the Army and their most recent criminal background check is also considered, Vanderbleek said.
"The school that hires the instructor then does a local background check," he said.
Playing down the notion that social aspects of the program can lead to inappropriate relationships, Vanderbleek and others say students often "latch on" to JROTC instructors as father figures.
"If the instructor doesn't watch themself, then the relationship can begin to develop that is inappropriate and illegal," Vanderbleek said.
Ray Smith, a 16-year JROTC instructor who has taught in Los Angeles, Oakland, Calif., and San Francisco, said he was approached "over 100 times" by students who were interested in a more personal relationship with him.
""The situations they're in at home is really crazy, so when someone treats them nice, they take that as someone being in love with them, and that's not the case," he said. "And then you have weak people. Some people just can't resist the opportunity, and they take it. It's human nature, but it's bad human nature."
Smith, a 24-year Army veteran, said that the number of incidents involving JROTC instructors and students "is not even a speck compared to other teachers, administrators, school nurses, counselors, music teachers. It's absolutely nothing."
The JROTC program was established as part of the National Defense Act of 1916, and now encompasses 1,700 schools, 4,000 instructors and about 300,000 students. It has been in Howard County since the mid-1970s.
Popular elective program
There are currently 160 students and three instructors in the county's JROTC program, Caplan said, at three Howard high schools — Atholton, Howard and Oakland Mills.
Anne Arundel County has JROTC programs at two schools, a Navy-affiliated program at Annapolis High School and an Army-affiliated program at Meade High School at Fort Meade. According to schools spokesman Bob Mosier, the Annapolis program was selected as the best in the country by the Navy this year.
There are 100 students and two instructors at 11 Baltimore County schools with JROTC programs, according to spokeswoman Phyllis Reese. Candidates must go through a "very stringent" screening process, Reese said, including military and personal background checks, as well as fingerprinting.
In Baltimore, 11 high schools have JROTC programs that include 1,425 students and 21 instructors. Schools spokeswoman Edie House said there have been no incidents involving improper relationships between students and instructors in the past 15 years.
It is an elective program, similar to band, involving classes and after-school activities. Vanderbleek said that fewer than 20 percent of JROTC students express an interest in enlisting, but that the program is "all about citizenship."
Still, incidents sometimes arise.
One of the most serious cases in recent years involved a JROTC instructor at a high school north of Pittsburgh who was charged with 58 counts of sexual abuse, intimidation and stalking of two boys, 13 and 14. The instructor pleaded not guilty, and his first trial ended in a mistrial. One of the boys later sued the instructor and the school district.
Howard County police are continuing to investigate the relationship between Moore and the Atholton student. Moore had been working at the school for five years, according to Caplan. He and the student had become friendly several months ago, communicating by cell phone and on Facebook, and developed what she told police was a consensual sexual relationship.
Police said the student, who was not identified, told her mother that she and the instructor had sex in the a supply closet in the school, and the mother called police.
Richard Weisenhoff, who recently retired from the Howard County school system and worked with the JROTC program in an administrative position, said, "These aberrations, unfortunately, put a bad light on a very successful program. I've only heard plaudits from the parents."
Schools Superintendant Sydney Cousin said that Moore's arrest doesn't shake his confidence in the JROTC program, "but it does raise questions about the personal behavior of adults when dealing with children."