About 200 sixth-graders at Floyd Dryden Middle School are participating this week in the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Hunters’ Education and Firearms Safety Program.
The program teaches adolescents how to safely handle and shoot rifles, as well as hunting ethics, conservation and management, navigation and other outdoor skills.
But longtime organizer Ken Coate stressed that teaching kids to become outdoorsmen is not the aim of the program.
“We aren’t here to create little hunters,” Coate said. “We’re here to teach firearm safety, firearm handling, how to treat a firearm with respect, how to keep a kid from getting in trouble with a firearm — and everything else is a side benefit.”
Floyd Dryden Principal Tom Milliron made a similar point in a letter to parents.
“Some students may not plan to hunt or may not be interested in outdoor activities,” the Oct. 8 letter stated, “however firearm safety and outdoor safety are essential skills for kids growing up in Southeast Alaska. Students who live in homes without firearms are often exposed to firearms in their friends’ homes. They need to understand safe and appropriate behavior in these situations.”
Students who complete the Floyd Dryden Outdoor Skills program, as Milliron called it in his letter, will receive a hunter education card recognized in all 50 states, issued by the ADF&G.
After a mandatory four hours spent learning firearms handling and safety in the classroom, participating sixth-grade students head out to the range for additional instruction — including live-firing, under careful supervision, .22-caliber rifles.
At the Juneau Hunter Education Facility and Indoor Shooting Range, one randomly selected group of students practices shooting with air rifles, while the other students use gunpowder-fired rifles, Range Manager Frank Zmuda said.
“We use the same caliber on both firearms, so that they get a similar experience, and the only difference is the propellant,” explained Zmuda. “One is powder and one is gas.”
Zmuda said staff at the range brief the kids on safety, while additional volunteers supervise them to make sure they are safe.
“We try to get one per student, but … no less than one per two students, so there is an adult immediately in the vicinity to make sure no unsafe acts occur,” Zmuda said.
Students also learn how to use a map and compass, when it is improper to take a shot while hunting and other skills at the JHEF.
On Tuesday morning, Commissioner Mike Hanley of the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development and Michael Lesmann, special staff assistant to Gov. Sean Parnell, were among special guests who spoke to several classes of students at Floyd Dryden about the program.
Lesmann told students they are fortunate to take a more comprehensive program than the one he took in his home state of North Dakota, while Hanley said he got his hunter education card with his son, calling it a “great opportunity” and “probably the best thing I did.”
“You guys are fortunate,” said Hanley to one class. “Not a lot of kids have this opportunity. I’m excited for you.”
Rep. Cathy Muñoz, R-Juneau, who represents the Mendenhall Valley in the Alaska House of Representatives, spoke to the students as well.
“We live in a land very closely tied to the outdoors, and our culture is very much tied to the hunting and outdoor recreation lifestyle, so this opportunity to learn about safety in the out-of-doors is really tremendous,” Muñoz told another class. “It’s a skill that you’ll carry with you for the rest of your life.”
Coate thanked Hanley, Lesmann and Muñoz for their support of the program. In one classroom of students, he remarked, “Without the commissioner’s support, this class would not happen. Without the governor’s support, this class wouldn’t happen. Without legislative support, this class doesn’t happen.”
The program is hosted by the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Program 4-H Outdoor Skills Club, Coate said. He said he has also been involved with efforts to bring the curriculum to other middle schools across Alaska, including in outlying Southeast Alaska communities like Angoon and Yakutat.
“My dream is that every sixth-grader in the state has firearms safety and hunter education at the sixth-grade level,” said Coate. He said he wants to prevent gun accidents, adding that when a firearms-related mishap occurs, “It’s not the gun’s fault. It’s the people’s fault.”
“That’s right,” Muñoz agreed.
But after 12 years of coordinating Floyd Dryden’s annual course and six years of the same at Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School, Coate said it is time to pass the torch to a group of younger volunteers.
“This program’s been in place,” said Coate, who is retired. “It’s got enough people to make it work.”
Hunters’ ed will come to Dzantik’i Heeni early next March. Coate said he will be out of town at the time, though he invited others to volunteer as instructors for the program.
• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 523-2279 or at email@example.com.