After spending hours in the classroom, half a day outside and a thrilling 30 minutes in an indoor shooting range, some 200 sixth-graders are now well-versed in firearms safety and survival skills. And, for those who passed the class, they have their shiny new Hunter Education identity cards to prove it.
Floyd Dryden Middle School students today wrapped up this year’s popular Alaska Department of Fish & Game Hunter Education and Firearm Safety Course, which teaches firearms handling and safety, marksmanship, shooting dos and don’ts and survival skills.
“It’s all about safety,” Ed Buyarski, a hunter information and training instructor, said. “And helping kids to make the right choices.”
The program, taught by ADF&G and other agency volunteers, was founded by the 4-H Outdoor Skills Club and is sponsored by the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service. The middle school has participated in the program for the past 11 years, said Linda Coate, a top volunteer with the program and the wife of Ken Coate, one of the founders of the Outdoor Skills Club and the school program.
Coate estimates about 4,000 students in Juneau have taken the course over the years.
“We hope we helped to either save their lives or someone around them or just give them the knowledge of how to be around guns safely, and to be active in the outdoors,” Coate said.
Coate emphasized students learned not just about guns, but how to survive in the wild if something happens while on a fishing trip or a family hike. Students also learn about wildlife conservation.
“It’s really just life skills,” she said, “which is something that is stressed in part of the creed of the Cooperative Extensive 4-H program.”
On Wednesday and Thursday, following a week of classroom training, six or seven classes of sixth-graders gleefully stepped off a school bus and onto the grounds of the ADF&G Education Training Facility on Montana Creek Road.
On the site, students rotated through classes on topography, mapping and compass directions and outdoor scenario instruction on hunting dos and don’ts. Silhouettes of bears, deer and caribou were placed on a walking course — and even a hunter in camouflage without an orange vest — and kids were faced with scenarios about whether it was ethically and legally safe to shoot. (They were equipped with dummy nonfiring rifles.) Kids were also provided free orange hunting vests and were encouraged to wear them in the future even though it’s not mandated for hunters in the state of Alaska, Buyarski said.
But perhaps the most popular class of the two days was the shooting instruction at the indoor shooting range at the facility. Students learned the pros and cons of the four different shooting positions — standing (the wobbliest), kneeling, sitting and prone, or lying face-down (the most stable). And then they had a little target practice. In order to pass the marksmanship test, the students shooting rifles with .22 ammo from 50 feet away have to make four shots in a three-inch circle. Students with air rifles shooting from 33 feet away have to make four shots in a 2-inch circle.
If the kids practice unsafe techniques, like jokingly point a rifle at someone else, they fail automatically on the spot. But most walk away with a Hunter Education and Safety certificate — required for hunting.
The kids also have to take a written test in school on the things they’ve learned.
Rebecca Farrell, a sixth-and seventh-grade looping teacher, says she’s glad students in Juneau are receiving this type of education and are learning survival skills.
“Living in Southeast Alaska, they get a lot out of this program because the environment here is unforgiving,” she said.
Another teacher, Rebecca Goertzen, said that 90 percent of Alaska homes have guns, so even if a student’s parents don’t own a firearm, it’s likely they will be invited to a house that does have a firearm.
“They need to know what’s appropriate and what’s not appropriate” when it comes to handling guns, she said.
Other schools in the area have participated in the program, and Dzantik’i Heeni will participate in the same course in the spring.
Ken Coate said that’s a good start to promoting firearm safety for kids, but it’s not enough.
“The goal is that every sixth-grade kid in the state of Alaska will have firearm safety and hunters education,” he said. “That’s my goal. Investing in firearm safety for the youth of today is an investment in the adults of tomorrow.”
• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 at firstname.lastname@example.org.