VENICE — This is a special year for the Marine Corps Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps at Venice High School.
It’s celebrating 50 years at the school, and now JROTC is taking on arguably its biggest mission ever — to finance and build a U.S. Marine Corps-style obstacle course on school grounds.
The course will benefit and be used by all students at the school. The Sarasota County School Board has already signed off on the project.
Retired Marine Corps. Capt. Dean P. Krom, senior Marine instructor with 20 years in the Marines, said Friday he’s approaching the halfway mark to cover the $100,000 cost.
The goal is to get the course built by the end of the school year.
“We want to get this done by the rainy season,” Krom said. “It’s being built in a retention pond, and it’s going to be a very challenging course.”
Those who — eventually — learn how to finish it will be able to ring a decommissioned Navy bell.
“When they ring that bell, it will be a very proud moment for somebody who struggled to get over that thing.”
Krom and Frank Troxell have been working with Venice students involved, working to instill good habits in teenagers.
The school is enjoying the largest JROTC enrollment in years, with 112 kids in the program.
“It’s a very misunderstood program,” Krom said. “It isn’t a recruiting tool. It’s leadership skills program for all kids.”
“A lot of kids like it because of the camaraderie. In terms of number of participants, it’s bigger than the band program, bigger than football, so they instantly know they can lean on others going through the same program,” he said.
It doesn’t have top athletes nor Ivy League-bound students, he said, “but we match the school’s demographics pretty well. If the school has 100 varsity athletes, 10% of them will be in our program.”
During the last school year, JROTC student Katharine Gower was selected to attend the Coast Guard Academy on a full ride worth more than $400,000, he said.
“In her first year, she’s doing extremely well. She’ll be somebody. She’s a rock star.”
The program also has special need students.
“So, we have a wide range of students who participate,” Krom said. “We do get parents who want their kids in a more disciplined environment. But we are not a correction institution. We show them living the right way has perks, and we hold their feet to the fire. Some get it. We save some, but not all. It’s not for everybody,” he said.
There’s a hair style code. Voluntary drug testing. Once a week students wear their JROTC uniform.
“It gives them a reason to be different. They’re the ones that you see pick up the trash, use ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’ when talking to an adult,” he said. “They’re the ones who deescalated a confrontation; not the ones that pull out their phone and take pictures of it. It gives them a reason to be on their very very best behavior. We’re teaching them to be professionals,” Krom said.
About 95% of the JROTC students participate in the drug free aspect of the program. Every month students are subject to a random urinalysis test. If they don’t participate, they don’t receive a Drug Free card.
The JROTC program is more like an elective course, like culinary class or weightlifting, Krom said.
“Anyone can take it,” Krom says. “It’s a life skills class. This is nothing more than preparing men and woman to be an asset to society. It will develop character. It stresses leadership skills that will enhance the lives of these students. For those that give it a chance, I think they find it’s one of the best decisions they made in their career.”
Some join for the JROTC activities. It has a sharp shooting team. Then there’s the Orienteers, which combines cross country and land navigation activities. Cadets compete in three different events, one is cross country, where they have to find a number of points with a map and compass in a certain order.
The Raiders competitions combine numerous sports, like running, with or without a backpack, navigating an obstacle course, and other activities that might simulate what they might be confronted with while on patrol.
Parent Tom Sweat speaks highly of the program. He has two children, Luke and Levi, in the program.
“We wanted a couple of things for our boys,” he said. “The discipline of ‘yes, sir,’ ‘yes, ma’am’, and the physical fitness aspect of it.
“We didn’t say to our sons, ‘you have to do JROTC.’ But we did say you have to be part of something.
“Luke, in 11th grade, is in football, too. JROTC has these great sports teams, and one of them is the Orienteers. Last week they went to an event that had 350 kids competing. It’s pretty cool. Their sharp shooting team is very disciplined, and they are very good at it,” Sweat said.
Parent Suzanne Park had four children, three daughters and a son, who all graduated through the JROTC program at Venice High.
She had no prior military experience, just an appreciation for discipline. Her youngest daughter graduated last year as the first female commanding officer in JROTC at Venice High.
“My kids actually chose to do it. My oldest daughter, Michaelah, started as a sophomore. She took it as an elective and loved it,” Park said.
“They especially loved the leadership training. My children really connected with the instructors ... because they care about your success,” Park said.
“When my son had difficulty getting work done in his other classes, they (instructors) would push him to get it done. They’d say, ‘you can’t just come to JROTC, you have to do your other classwork too.’ It was nice to have that support.”
She said her children saw it as a privilege, not punishment.
“The leadership skills they’ve developed are amazing. All of my kids are extremely successful. They know there are no excuses. It’s not somebody else’s fault if your stuff didn’t get done,” Park said.
Although two of her children intended to go into the military, that isn’t what happened.
“Life had other plans for them,” Park said.
Michaelah now works for Lockheed Martin as a chemical engineer specializing in fire suppression systems.
Suzanne Park also showered accolades upon the JROTC program for its team building sports activities.
“It was incredible to watch the kids work together. I see that in my kids today,” she said. “They are always looking out for each other. Never leave anyone behind. They’re friendly, outgoing. Encouragers. In today’s society, that’s not a common characteristic.”
To learn more about JROTC or to contribute financially to the VHS obstacle course, email Dean.Krom@SarasotaCountySchools.net.