Has OMI Gone Soft? 

Parents worry that the military academy is de-emphasizing all things military.

It's been a tough month for Bruce Holaday. On the night of May 3 at the campus of the Oakland Military Institute, the charter school set up to drill discipline into 450 kids who would otherwise sink into the mire of the public schools, he sat hunched over a table. Fifty men and women stood in a semicircle around him, their scowls barely suppressed by a nod to civil decorum. As the institute's superintendent, Holaday has a lot of duties, from mapping educational strategy to keeping his hormone-hyped "cadets" in line. But he had to face a mob of angry parents and students who had come to demand that he either repair the damage he had supposedly wrought — or resign.

Inside one of the school's portable buildings, Linda Esparza, a blond middle-aged mom in a letterman's jacket, gathered herself to speak. She stumbled over words and hesitated, clearly ill at ease. But what compelled her to drive out to the old Oakland Army base and confront Holaday was eventually clear: She'd concluded that the man who promised to run an institution of iron discipline and drills on the blacktop was a secret hippie. After praising the high school's military culture, she declared that "people that are here that don't want it to be that way should step down."

In the last two weeks, the Oakland Military Institute has convulsed through a new identity crisis, one that is particularly bizarre for the East Bay. When Jerry Brown decided to open the school, a swarm of liberal critics denounced him for starting a campaign to spread dangerous military values to impressionable children. But the dozens of blue-collar parents who packed the meeting to yell at Holaday think they've fingered a different conspiracy. Under his regime, they suspect, the Oakland Military Institute has quietly begun a scheme to eliminate military personnel, uniforms, and discipline.

"I put my boys here for a reason, and that was because it was a military school," said Chris Tallerico, a member of the Richmond Police Commission. "In my last few trips down to the school, I gotta tell ya, I was really surprised. The lack of discipline shocked me. ... The amount of kids that are out of uniform is staggering. I don't even know why we have a uniform standard with the amount of kids that are out of uniform. The language is unbelievable. The racial epithets, the use of the N-word in front of parents, is outrageous, and should be absolutely unacceptable on a school campus. And now I hear that the military personnel are being replaced by civilian people in a military uniform. I'm not real happy about it."

Students and parents have been grumbling about small changes in the institute's direction for months, but when Holaday decided not to renew the contracts of five military instructors two weeks ago, everyone snapped. Students loved these "sergeants" and grew to depend upon their gruff commands and stern demeanor. Now they learned that the instructors had been fired, and that two of them were also due to be shipped out to Iraq. When they heard the news, and discovered that Holaday might replace the sergeants with civilians, cadet Joseph Bryant raced around campus, urging his fellow students not to take this lying down. About a hundred cadets walked out of class and held a five-hour rally on campus. Holaday tried to calm everyone down. He sent a letter to parents that very day, in which he asked, "Please help your cadet understand that change is a part of life and not always easy."

As Holaday watched from his chair, Bryant, dressed in his OMI baseball uniform, stood up and added his voice to the crowd. "I am here until four-thirty every day on this campus," he barked. "I'm here talking with sergeants. I know these sergeants, and they are part of my heart and my family. And to see them go will be one of the hardest things that I will have to go through. Because they've helped me through so many things, through so many situations that I've been through at OMI. I can't stand to see them leave."

Finally, after fatigue-and-boot-clad OMI Colonel James Gabrielli offered a few assurances, it was Holaday's turn. He was flanked by the institute's board of directors, but he still had a big job ahead of him. All the parents here thought they saw the signs of order breaking down, from civilian clothes to student rowdiness. Before coming here, Holaday had spent 28 years working at other military academies. Still, he had to convince them he was dedicated to a culture of rock-ribbed discipline, and there was just something about his smooth, soft-spoken demeanor that left everyone convinced he wasn't really one of them. "I know I'm facing a rough crowd here, and I know that most of you, if not all of you here this evening believe that I don't want a strong military component at OMI," he began. "I really am sorry for that. ... I say this from the bottom of my heart: That is not my intention."

Holaday patiently ran through a litany of new educational challenges the school faced as its first crop of students grew older, needed advanced placement classes, and went through the turbulence of late adolescence. He described a new program he planned to introduce, based on other military schools around the country. He claimed that the number of military instructors would actually increase. But he also said that the new staff would not necessarily hail from the California National Guard, which made all the difference to these parents. If the new military teachers weren't in the military, they asked themselves, what was the point?

"I know that next year, that the students who love the military at this school will be happy about what they find next year," Holaday concluded. "Along the way, some wonderful people that personally I like, and that many of your sons and daughters like, may not be here. These are the tough choices that have to be made. But they're being made, I assure you, not willy-nilly, not without plenty of sleepless nights, not without thought."

It's fair to say that Holaday's pitch didn't exactly sail with this crowd. With his sensitive eyes, mellifluous voice, and brown slacks, he came off like an encounter group facilitator, while the parents wanted a drill sergeant. They just didn't trust him; they felt manipulated. When Holaday wrapped up, parent revolt leader Robert Allred stood up and shouted, "Actions speak louder than words, gentlemen. You gave good people bad marks. It's inexcusable! I'm leaving!"

Institute director Peter Thorp responded, "Mr. Allred, you had your chance to speak!" and invited everyone to stick around and watch how the school conducted its business. But many of the most vocal parents left in disgust. Standing outside in an evening downpour, they swapped horror stories, considered their options, and wondered if Jerry Brown knew what was happening to his school. While everyone else in Oakland resolutely distrusts the military, these hapless parents are the city's last hawks, and they feel left out in the rain.

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