Thousands of youths had been placed into the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, a program funded by the US military designed to open students’ eyes to the so-called idea of a military career.

Iran PressAmerica: In the class, students had to wear military uniforms and obey orders from an instructor who was often yelling, families said, but when they pleaded to be allowed to drop the class, school administrators refused, saying: “It is mandatory.”

JROTC programs, taught by military veterans at some 3,500 high schools across the country, are supposed to be elective, and the Pentagon has said requiring students to take them goes against its guidelines. But The New York Times found thousands of public school students were being funneled into the classes without ever having chosen them, either as an explicit requirement or by being automatically enrolled.

A vast majority of the schools with those high enrollment numbers were attended by a large proportion of nonwhite students and those from low-income households, the Times elsewhere added.

The role of JROTC in US high schools has been a point of debate since the program was founded more than a century ago. During the anti-war battles of the 1970s, protests over what was seen as an attempt to recruit high schoolers to serve in Vietnam prompted some school districts to restrict the program. Most schools gradually phased out any enrollment requirements.

But 50 years later, new conflicts are emerging, as parents in some cities say their children are being forced to put on military uniforms, obey a chain of command and recite patriotic declarations in classes they never wanted to take.

JROTC classes, which offer instruction in a wide range of topics, including weapons handling, have provided the military with a valuable way to interact with teenagers at a time when it is facing its most serious recruiting challenge since the end of the Vietnam War.

While Pentagon officials have long insisted JROTC is not a recruiting tool, they have openly discussed expanding the $400-million-a-year program, whose size has already tripled since the 1970s, as a way of drawing more young people into military service. The Army says 44% of all soldiers who entered its ranks in recent years came from a school that offered JROTC.

Critics have long contended the program’s militaristic discipline emphasizes obedience over independence and critical thinking. The program’s textbooks, the Times found, at times falsify or downplay the failings of the US government.