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Weapons Training Program at Local High Schools Under Fire

California high school officials are taking part in a statewide summit today about school shootings. The summit comes at a time when there's mounting pressure in the San Diego Unified School District

Weapons Training Program at Local High Schools Under Fire

(Photo: A JROTC student at San Diego High School stands in front of his assigned targets. Ana Tintocalis/KPBS )
California high school officials are taking part in a statewide summit today about school shootings. The summit comes at a time when there's mounting pressure in the San Diego Unified School District to end a Junior ROTC air-rifle training program. Community activists say having guns on campus sends the wrong message to students. But district officials say the training instills confidence and discipline. KPBS Reporter Ana Tintocalis has this report. 

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JROTC students at San Diego High School stand in front of their assigned targets. Ana Tintocalis/KPBS.

It's the end of the school day at San Diego High School. A group of teenagers enrolled in the school's Junior ROTC program heads to an indoor shooting range on the edge of campus for target practice. Once inside, the students are handed high-performance air-rifles. The kids load the guns with lead pellets and take their positions ready to shoot. 

Instructor Tim Hughey gives the order to fire.


Hughey: OK, cadets the firing line is secure. Get focused. You know you're shot plan. Relax control the breathing.

One by one the students pull their triggers. Hughey coaches the cadets on every aspect of their shooting technique. He says shooting teaches cadets patience and self-discipline. He also says it helps them develop their concentration skills. 

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Inside San Diego High School’s indoor shooting range. Ana Tintocalis/KPBS

Hughey: It is a sport completely about the self-control, the mental capacity, to relax one's body and be completely in charge of yourself. And to get that perfect shot off.

Marksmanship training has been part of the district's Junior ROTC program for decades. It’s currently offered at 13 San Diego high schools. Students who take part in the training compete in state and national championships.

But the decades-old program is now under fire. The issue now is whether JROTC should introduce marksmanship to two inner-city campuses -- Lincoln High School in South San Diego and Mission Bay High School in Pacific Beach. Community activists say no type of gun or weapons training should be allowed on campuses in light of recent school shootings. They say the training poses a safety threat and goes beyond against the district's self-mandated zero tolerance policy on weapons. Activist Mshinda Nyofu wants the district to drop the riflery program at all schools.  

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Mission Bay high school students protest the JROTC’s marksmanship program. Ana Tintocalis/KPBS

Nyofu: What's the purpose of teaching a child of how to shoot a weapon? It’s rifle, it’s weapon, and it’s shooting. And you have a policy that says you can't do that. No school program should be allowed to have weapons training on campus.  

Nyofu says the issue is particularly important in South San Diego where shootings and gang violence are a way of life. Community leaders have been trying to teach kids NOT to pick up guns. Pastor Harry Cooper worries the program will cloud a student's judgement. 

Cooper: Weapons are a tool for violence. It is a false sense of pride, a false sense of self, and it sends a conflicted message.

That sentiment resonates with a growing number of students at Lincoln and Mission Bay high schools. Ninth grader Joseph Garcia worries those guns can fall into the hands.

Garcia: That's just not the thing to do at school -- zero tolerance policy states not weapons at school. One time I brought a water gun to elementary school and they wanted to expel me for that. But when I come to high school the example they're setting for me is that its okay for me to have guns at school.

The director of San Diego Unified's Junior ROTC program Jan Janus believes students and community members are demonizing the program for no good reason. He says the training doesn't violate the district's zero-tolerance policy because there's adult supervision.

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JROTC Cadet Macro Cedrano stands by San Diego High School’s marksmanship trophy case. Ana Tintocalis/KPBS

Janus: Guns, rifles, pistols are part of our society. And I could let someone from the Lincoln community learn about guns in alley someplace at night. Or they can learn in a controlled environment with safety procedures and trained instructors. There have been zero accidents and no cadet have gone out and committed a crime with an air-rifle. We have in fact though had a lot of students get scholarships.

Janus points out students who want to shoot have to take a safety course and pass a safety test before they even touch an air-rifle. 

But that doesn't convince community activists and students who want the riflery program eliminated. 

The San Diego Unified school board is expected to consider the issue at its upcoming meeting.

Ana Tintocalis, KPBS News.