PICAYUNE, Miss. — With the rifle skills she honed in the Mississippi backwoods, Victoria Bauer had a path to escape the trap of drugs and dead-end jobs she saw most everywhere around her. Her future was in the Marines, she decided, and she had an idea about how to get there.

Across the way from her freshman algebra class, Bauer approached Steve Hardin, the retired Navy intelligence officer who guided the high school’s Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, a leadership program sponsored by the U.S. military at high schools across the country. He welcomed her into the fold, she said.

Soon, her 45-year-old JROTC instructor was messaging her on Snapchat late into the night, telling her that it would “drive the guys crazy” if she wore a “small bikini” during the trip to their next out-of-state shooting competition. Then one night in 2015 as he drove her home from rifle practice, she told investigators, Hardin pushed his hand into her pants and penetrated her with his fingers — the start of what she said was months of sexual assaults. Bauer, who was 15 at the time, feared that resisting him would jeopardize her shot at advancement through the JROTC ranks or a military career.

“I gave all the body-language signals that I didn’t want it,” Bauer said. “I didn’t feel like I had a choice.”

For more than a century, the JROTC program has sought to instill U.S. military values in American teenagers, with classes in thousands of public high schools that provide training in marksmanship, life skills, hierarchical discipline and military history.

But a New York Times investigation — which included an examination of thousands of court documents, investigative files and other records obtained through more than 150 public disclosure requests — has found that the program has repeatedly become a place where retired military officers prey on their teenage students.

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In the past five years, the Times found, at least 33 JROTC instructors have been criminally charged with sexual misconduct involving students, far higher than the rate of civilian high school teachers in jurisdictions examined by the Times. Many others have been accused of misconduct but never charged.

The senior military veterans who make up the JROTC ranks are certified by the military but deploy to high school classrooms with little oversight and scant training for the actual work of being a teacher. Many states do not require JROTC instructors to have a college degree or a teaching certificate. Schools are expected to monitor the instructors and investigate complaints, but they have struggled to adequately oversee a program that largely operates on the fringes of their campuses.

Victims have reported sexual assaults in classrooms and supply closets, during field trips or on late-night rides home, sometimes committed after instructors plied students with alcohol or drugs. One former student said her instructor told her that sexual submission was expected of women in the military. A recent cadet in Tennessee said her JROTC instructor warned that he had the skills to kill her without a trace if she told anyone about their sexual encounters. In Missouri, a student said she was forced to kneel at her instructor’s bedside, blindfolded, with a gun to her head.

The Times interviewed 13 victims, many of whom had strikingly similar stories: They were teenagers who came from disadvantaged backgrounds or who otherwise saw the military as a pathway to a promising future, then found that the instructors who fashioned themselves as mentors exploited their positions to manipulate and abuse.

JROTC leaders declined requests for interviews but pointed to research indicating that the program had a positive effect on school attendance and graduation rates. The U.S. Army Cadet Command, which sponsors the largest JROTC program, said in a statement that its instructors went through a “strenuous” vetting process and that any allegations of misconduct were investigated, typically by the school districts that hired the JROTC instructors as civilian employees.

Founded during World War I, the JROTC program has grown to serve a half-million teenagers each year. Its instructors are retired officers or noncommissioned officers.

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For the military, which has struggled to meet its recruiting goals in an all-volunteer Army, JROTC has also been seen as a potentially important recruiting tool; students from high schools with JROTC programs are more than twice as likely to enlist after graduation, according to the Army Cadet Command.

The program targets schools with high populations of low-income students. Across the country, majority-minority schools are nearly three times as likely as majority-white schools to have a JROTC program, according to a Times analysis.

The nature of the program offers instructors an unusual level of access to the children they mentor, according to interviews with former students and instructors. It often operates with its own classrooms and facilities, and students frequently are asked to participate in after-school, weekend and out-of-state activities, where instructors sometimes violate district rules by communicating with students on personal cellphones or driving them in their own vehicles.

The weak oversight has allowed some instructors to engage in repeated misconduct. At least seven of those who have been criminally charged had already been flagged for previous allegations of misconduct but were allowed to stay on the job.

Many of the instructors charged with sexual misconduct have pleaded guilty, although Hardin contested the sexual battery charges against him and eventually entered a no-contest plea to an unrelated charge that did not involve sexual misconduct but effectively barred him from working as a teacher. None of the instructors connected with the abuse described in this article or their lawyers agreed to be interviewed.

“There’s so much faith and confidence and trust that goes into these instructor positions,” said Joe Williams, a former Marine gunnery sergeant who worked as a JROTC instructor in Mississippi and Kansas for six years, and who was the first to raise concerns about Hardin with school administrators. “We’ve got these individuals who use that trust as a cloak.”

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‘I felt trapped’

When she came forward with allegations against her Air Force JROTC instructor in Charlotte, North Carolina, Dominique Mixon wondered whether anyone would believe her.

The instructor, Brad Gibson, had a catalog of medals and ribbons earned over 24 years of service. After retiring from active duty, he was hired to lead the military program at his alma mater, Independence High School.

Mixon had joined JROTC as a freshman, hoping to go all four years and pursue a possible career in the Air Force. Gibson, then 44, had at first been a friendly mentor, but at times became flirtatious, Mixon told investigators in 2010.

Then, as she was working on an assignment alone at the back of the JROTC complex one day, she said, he came up next to her and began rubbing her thigh. He next moved his hand up her shirt, kissed her neck and licked her ears, Mixon reported.

She reported the incident within days to a teacher, who referred her to a campus police officer. But her report went nowhere.

A school administrator told police investigators that Gibson had previously been counseled for “borderline inappropriate behavior with his female students,” records say, but he was allowed to continue leading the JROTC program.

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It was Mixon who was pushed out of the program.

“I felt trapped,” Mixon said. “I felt alone in a corner. I felt like it was just me, myself and I.”

Eight years later, long after she had graduated, Mixon got a call from a Charlotte police officer: A 16-year-old student had filed a new report about Gibson.

The 2018 allegations led authorities to reopen Mixon’s case. Two years ago, Gibson pleaded guilty to indecent liberties with both girls. He was sentenced to five years of probation and required to register as a sex offender.

The school district declined to comment about the case, citing personnel confidentiality. Gibson did not respond to a message seeking comment.

Records released under public disclosure laws show cases across the country in which JROTC instructors who wound up being criminally charged had been the subject of complaints from students in the past, including in Chicago, Casa Grande, Arizona, and Mandeville, Louisiana.

In the case of Bauer, other concerns about Hardin’s conduct had emerged months before she came forward.

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Williams, the JROTC instructor who reported him, recalled that Hardin had made a lewd comment to him about a student in a bikini. Then, when some students came to him with a report that they had seen several concerning text messages that Hardin had sent to a female student, Williams said, he brought the issue to school administrators.

But he said he faced intense blowback.

School officials did not respond to requests to discuss the case. But court records show that a police investigation ensued. Bauer initially defended him, saying in a recent interview that she did not disclose her encounters with Hardin at the time because she feared she would be ostracized.

Hardin was not charged at the time, and wound up applying for a new role at a JROTC program two hours away from Picayune.

He got the job.

Obedience comes first

In JROTC classrooms, instructors are not just teachers. They are superior officers, and students are taught to follow the chain of command.

“Obedience is the first lesson every military person must learn,” one of the program’s textbooks says.

Abuse victims said the power dynamics in the program made it more difficult to resist sexual assaults.

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With at least 33 instructors charged with teacher-student sexual crimes in the past five years, the JROTC program has recorded one arrest for every 232 instructor positions. There is no national tracking system for educator abuse, but the Times reviewed arrest information for high school teachers released by three of the nation’s largest school districts — Miami-Dade County, Florida, Hillsborough County, Florida, and Los Angeles — along with five years of disciplinary records in Pennsylvania, which proactively monitors for teacher arrests.

Compared with each of those jurisdictions, the JROTC program recorded teacher-student sexual misconduct charges much more often — 68% higher than the next highest case rate.

No prison time

Bauer said that Hardin continued to pursue sexual encounters with her for several months after he transferred to the new job at another school district. He would ask her to meet, she said, and gradually she began to realize that she no longer needed to respond.

She eventually told her mother, and then police. Hardin was charged in 2017 with six counts of sexual battery.

He eventually pleaded no contest to a lesser crime, contributing to the abuse or neglect of a child, in which he did not admit any sexual misconduct but said he had failed to notify authorities about unrelated possible abuse or neglect that Bauer suffered at home. One judge rejected the plea arrangement. A second judge also balked. Defense lawyers eventually won a hearing before a third judge, who accepted the deal.

Hal Kittrell, the district attorney in the case, said prosecutors always believed Bauer but had to consider the likelihood of winning the case.

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Prosecutors agreed to the plea because it gave Hardin a felony record and barred him from working as a teacher, Kittrell said.

Hardin declined an interview but emphasized in a brief conversation that the original charges against him had been dropped.

Bauer said the experience forever changed her view of men, the justice system, schools and the military.

“The people who are supposed to be out protecting our country, do they really protect their own people?” Bauer said.

She never joined the Marines.

Methodology

The locations of public high schools with JROTC programs come from the Army, Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy websites. The Times joined this data with federal Education Department data that includes each school’s racial demographics and the school’s eligibility for Title I funding. The data set of public high schools includes those in the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia, including the Bureau of Indian Education, that go up to at least the 10th grade, as of the 2019-20 academic year. The analysis does not include JROTC programs located at private schools, schools on U.S. territories or schools on international military bases.