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Dade County Plans A 'Gun Awareness' Program for K-12

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In an attempt to cut down on the number of accidental shootings involving children, the Dade County, Fla., board of education has voted unanimously to adopt a four-part "gun awareness" program that will make the district the nation's first to offer a K-12 curriculum on the subject.

Central to the program, officials said last week, will be the message that guns are dangerous and children should avoid them.

The district was eager to disassociate its effort from curricular materials being offered by the National Rifle Association.

James Fleming, the associate superintendent for communications and management services, said that the nra package makes it seem "perfectly normal and natural to have a gun in the house."

"We don't want it to appear normal and natural that guns are out there and we have to live with them," he said.

The board's approval of the curriculum last month came in response to a task-force recommendation. The panel was convened by the county's education department last spring after reports that a record number of Dade County youths had been killed in firearms accidents.

According to school officials, 37 Dade County residents under the age of 19 have been fatally shot this year, 13 more than in all of 1987. That is the year in which Florida lawmakers enacted the nation's most permissive law on the purchase and possession of handguns.

"These are accidents involving children who have found a gun in mommy's closet," said Mr. Fleming.

"We've had children coming to school with guns they've found at home, or in the bushes, or even because they feel they have a need to protect themselves," he noted.

Judith Matz, a spokesman for the school board, said that the concern over guns "began as a school-safety issue, but now it's a survival issue."

Mr. Fleming stressed that the point of the program is not to teach children how to use a gun safely, but to teach them never to touch a gun at all, and to understand how dangerous they can be.

"We need to let these children know that guns are not as simple as they appear to be on television," he said.

George E. Butterfield, a program specialist for the National School Safety Center in Encino, Calif., said the Dade County program is the first to be adopted as part of the school curriculum on all levels that deals specifically with gun awareness.

Some schools invite policemen into classes to discuss crime prevention, which may include some discussion of gun safety. But none of those programs, according to Mr. Butterfield, are as extensive as the Dade County plan.

Dade County is not the first district to consider such a program, however. Discussions on the subject have taken place in Chicago, Detroit, New York City, and Baltimore, Mr. Butterfield said, adding, "We'll be watching Dade very carefully to see what happens with it."

According to the most recent national data collected by the National Center for Health Statistics in Hyattsville, Md., 3,097 people under the age of 19 were killed by firearms in the United States in 1985. Of those, 519 deaths were classified as accidental.

The statistics also show that the largest number of 1985 firearm deaths--1,053--were homicides among 10- to 14-year-olds. Suicide deaths among 15- to 19-year-olds using firearms represented the second-highest number, with 968 reported.

Nra officials approached Dade County with their gun-safety program last year, hoping that Dade would become the first district to use the materials, which are available nationally.

According to Mr. Fleming, the Dade County task force considered the nra proposal but concluded that the materials were philosophically inappropriate.

The powerful lobbying group's instructional materials--which are aimed especially at pupils in the early grades--include a coloring book and posters featuring "Eddie the Eagle," who warns youngsters not to touch a gun if they find one at home and to tell an adult about the gun immediately.

In addition to questioning the use of a coloring book as the medium for this message, Mr. Fleming criticized the nra package as conveying the idea that guns are a natural part of life.

The Dade County school board, he noted, has had a history of lobbying the state legislature for stricter gun-control measures.

"We would like to take every gun in the community and dump them into the ocean," he said.

The assistant superintendent also8noted that school officials had been angered when the nra began sending one of its publications--Insights, a magazine about sports shooting for young people--to Dade County elementary-school librarians. According to Mr. Fleming, the publication "glorifies gun use."

But because Dade school officials do not believe in censorship, he said, they have not banned the magazine. He expressed the hope that the gun-awareness program would put the nra's message in context for students.

Tracey Martin, a spokesman for the nra in Washington, maintained that the goal of the organization's gun-safety program was the same as Dade County's. "We're both trying to save lives," she said.

"The school district is not a nationally recognized entity for gun safety, and we are," Ms. Martin added. "But good for them. If they want to develop their own program, then go for it."

The Dade County gun-awareness program, which officials say will be in place by the first of the year, will be taught by representatives from the local Youth Crime Watch group.

It will be included among several offered by Youth Crime Watch in county schools as part of the district's $100,000 contract with the organization to bring various crime-prevention messages into the classroom.

The gun-awareness program will be offered at least once a year, every year, Mr. Fleming said, and will include four components:

Children in grades K-6 will be taught not to touch a gun, and that guns are dangerous.

In grades 7-12, the same message will be offered, but students will also learn graphically how destructive a gun can be. Films, pictures, and doctors' accounts will be used to convey the damage caused by bullet injuries.

Training for parents on the problems of gun use and ownership--and on how to help children avoid exposure to guns--will be incorporated into the program.

And Dade officials will establish an information hotline to provide parents and children with further information, and to encourage children to report finding a gun.

Dade County officials said they hoped the program will be used as a model for other districts.

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