Gun safety education meets the politicians


January 28, 2001|By MIKE BURNS

AMID all the excitement that Carroll's gun safety curriculum could serve as a statewide education model, let's not forget an important fact.

There's no track record for the K- 9 lessons and not much useful feedback.

The series of lesson plans was developed over six months last year by a panel of teachers, parents, police and other citizens on a sort of deadline. Their work got done in August, just a couple of weeks before this school year started.

How effective educators have been in weaving it into the health and safety education programs has yet to be established. (These instruction segments are already crammed with other lessons that need to be taught. They're always getting squeezed by pressures for more emphasis on fundamentals or academic subjects.)

More importantly, there's no feedback on how students have perceived and understood the instruction. The reaction of youngsters -- in an actual classroom setting -- is paramount in assessing the worth of this new curriculum. And in making changes so that the educational goals are met.

For example, we don't know if hand puppet plays convey the right tone for younger children. Do they react with amusement or do they get the seriousness of the message?

This is not to diminish the expertise and effort that went into crafting this pioneer program.

Sure, there are proven pedagogical techniques that were adopted. Other gun safety programs were studied and pieces were borrowed from them. But this was a distinctly new program that no other school system had used before.

The panel made decisions about using materials and approaches that would teach kids about the deadly dangers of firearms, without preaching that guns are evil and something to be entirely avoided.

It's a sensitive line to tread, but something that health/safety educators often have to deal with.

Traffic safety programs teach children how to obey the laws and avoid the dangers. Older students learn how to safely operate a car. Motor vehicles are not demonized; responsible conduct as pedestrian and driver are emphasized. From these lessons in school, the use of motor vehicles is encouraged.

Drugs, on the other hand, are a clear danger to all. The tragic consequences of even "trying" these illegal substances are stressed. The only responsible response, at all ages, is to just say "no."

In the politically charged arena, gun safety education in public schools has the potential to be as divisive as sex education.

Is the instruction in gun safety an implicit endorsement to use the tool, responsibly, at a proper age? Or are the warnings of danger sufficiently ominous to discourage the use of guns by anyone at any age?

Carroll County was a good place to search for an acceptable middle ground: suburban with a strong rural influence; a conservative community, home to many deer hunters and target shooters.

It began with the proposal to offer the National Rifle Association's Eddie Eagle gun safety presentations to elementary school children. The program has been around for years and is nationally recognized.

But, of course, it came with political and emotional baggage of the NRA, which promotes the legal use of firearms and doggedly battles any effort to restrict them.

And that provoked an immediate backlash, not only from gun foes but from those wary of anything associated with the NRA. There was also the expressed concern that gun safety education should not be restricted to elementary school, but should also extend to upper grades.

The result was the school system's committee that developed a program unique to Carroll County, integrated in the health curriculum and incorporating a more cautionary lesson plan than that of Eddie Eagle. Conflict-resolution and decision-making became part of the larger program.

That local effort prompted a rush by politicians make gun safety a mandatory statewide education requirement.

Given the short winter calendar of the Maryland General Assembly, the legislation was drafted and filed even before Carroll schools had given their curriculum an appropriate test.

There's apparent bipartisan support for such a measure, especially one that lets each school district choose its own program. Most legislators seem to feel that it's appropriate for all grades, even if they differ on what the content should be.

The principal conflict is between a bill filed by Carroll's Republican Del. Carmen Amedori and one drafted by Baltimore's Democratic Sen. Barbara Hoffman.

The Amedori legislation has police officers teach the program, ends the program after sixth grade, and takes it out of the health curriculum. It largely copies the NRA model, without the eagle.

The Hoffman measure, with wider support, would have teachers teach gun safety in all grades, as part of the health program.

Changes invariably happen to any legislation. Whether it's part of the health module, and whether police are used as teaching resources, gun safety is something that children need to learn. Too many deaths and injuries occur because of such ignorance.

Carroll's curriculum could well be a model for the rest of the state. Only it's got to have the time to prove itself in the classroom.

Mike Burns writes editorials for The Sun from Carroll County.

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