IN a basement classroom, six high schoolers tear open cardboard boxes with Christmas morning glee. Inside, sheathed in plastic, are surplus US Army rifles, their firing mechanisms removed.
''They're like real,'' exclaims one youth as he hefts a wooden stock to his shoulder, sights on an imaginary target, and squeezes the unyielding trigger.
Welcome to the Bell Multi-Cultural High School in Washington, which this year started a unit of the Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps (JROTC), the Pentagon-run program that gives teens a taste of military life.
The rifles are for drill practice, which an instructional videotape tells them ''teaches automatic response to orders'' and helps ''develop discipline.'' But the presence of military doctrine and even neutered weapons in violence-plagued schools is helping fuel an outcry against a rapidly growing JROTC in dozens of cities and towns across the nation.
The volume of complaints appears driven largely by the aggressiveness with which the military is pursuing a three-year goal to expand JROTC by more than 70 percent by 1997. In the post-cold-war era, many protesters are questioning the use of scarce public school resources and facilities for what they charge is a military indoctrination and recruitment program.
The military insists JROTC - each of the services sponsors its own units - addresses some of the most pressing problems of many public school youths. It is promoted as an elective, in place of physical education or vocational training, that teaches responsibility, discipline, and self-reliance through drill, riflery, and leadership courses. Military history, officials say, instills patriotism and civic values, while the retired service members who work as instructors act as positive role-models.
''The program does an awful lot of good for a lot of kids....'' says Hans Krucke, the Navy JROTC program manager. ''They come out of JROTC with skills and attitudes and attributes that are desirable to employers.''
Agrees Marcie Miller, principal of Olympic High School, an institution for problem youths in Mt. Diablo, Calif.: ''I have seen students tending toward violence or criminal behavior who come out of [JROTC] with self-discipline.''
But opponents argue JROTC is a military recruitment tool in disguise. They charge that it targets poor school districts in order to skim off the most promising students. Furthermore, they say, the JROTC curriculum teaches blind obedience, militarism, and a distorted version of US history that stereotypes ethnic minorities.
''I don't think JROTC has a place in high schools,'' says San Francisco Education Board President Dan Kelly. ''I have serious questions about the pervasive role of military thinking and militarism in our schools. I don't think what JROTC teaches is leadership. It's obedience and group thinking.''
Such allegations were raised this year in more than 40 towns and cities, as parents, teachers, peace activists, and religious groups contested the opening of new JROTC units or urged the disbanding of existing ones. Gay-rights activists joined in to protest the military's ban on homosexuals.
School boards in places such as Culver City, La., Rochester, N.Y., and Scottsdale, Ariz., ultimately opted for new units. Some, like that in Waterboro, Maine, delayed decisions pending JROTC curriculum evaluations. Others, like those in Tucson, Ariz., Richmond, Calif., and Seattle, Wash., voted no.
''It's very controversial in a lot of areas,'' agrees Jack Muhlenberg, a spokesman for the Army Cadet Command, which oversees Army JROTC units. ''There are school districts that feel this is a way for the military services to wedge themselves into the public schools.''
Opponents narrowly lost a vote in June to terminate the 1,500-student program in San Francisco. JROTC has been a divisive issue in the city since a 1994 ''hazing'' incident in which three students were slugged in the arms as they ran a gantlet of other unit members. A fight erupted and one student suffered serious hearing loss. The three are suing the school district
More recently, San Francisco schools Superintendent Bill Rojas ordered all rifles - those for drill and operational weapons used in targetry - withdrawn from all JROTC units because their presence contradicted the official ''no guns in school'' policy.
Since its inauguration by Gen. Colin Powell, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the number of units has risen from about 1,490 in 1992 to more than 2,200. In excess of 270,000 students are enrolled.
For well-off school districts, the Pentagon subsidizes 50 percent of the wages of the JROTC instructors. For poorer districts that open new units, it generally subsidizes 100 percent of the instructors' salaries for the first two years. Its contribution then begins declining until it reaches 50 percent in the fifth year. The districts pick up the differences. They also provide 100 percent of instructors' benefits.
While the $150-million program remains fully funded, the Pentagon recently scaled back from 2,900 to 2,600 the number of units it wants established by 1997.
''To us, this is a measure of the success of what we are doing,'' asserts Chris Lombardi of the San Francisco-based Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, a leading anti-JROTC group.
Harold Jordan of the American Friends Services Committee (AFSC), a Quaker group, says most school boards that reject JROTC mainly do so for financial reasons. Aside from helping to pay instructors, districts must provide class space, fund utilities and field trips.
The financial question aside, critics contend that far from helping troubled teens, JROTC is designed to weed them out while luring promising minority students into careers in a military increasingly concerned with the quality and quantity of its recruits. They ask how JROTC benefits ''at-risk'' students when enrollment requires a ''C'' average and a clean disciplinary records.
A February 1995 study of the Army JROTC by two University of North Carolina anthropologists and commissioned by the AFSC appears to substantiate charges that the program is a recruitment device. ''Making Soldiers in the Public Schools: An Analysis of the Army JROTC Curriculum'' used Pentagon statistics that showed units were clustered in southern high schools - 65 percent are located in 14 southern states - and schools with high proportions of minorities. Forty-five percent of JROTC graduating students
go straight into the military; seven out of 10 join as non-officer personnel.
But Fred Bechard, school superintendent in Waterboro, Maine. has no objection to the military using JROTC as a recruiting tool. ''A large group of my youngsters join the military upon graduation. For me to oppose this program, would be denying my youngsters the opportunity to reach their full potential.''