Sixth-grader Adrienne Sypeck fired a gun for the first time Wednesday.
"It felt great," she said. "You get full of adrenaline ... and you're so happy once you see your results. If you hit the target, it's awesome."
Sypeck and her classmates at Floyd Dryden Middle School are taking part in an outdoor education program that involves classes in firearm and water safety, hunting ethics and orienteering. The students also get to spend some time at an indoor shooting range taking target practice on either an air rifle or .22-caliber rifles.
Now in its eighth year, Principal Tom Milliron said the main purpose of the program is to make sure all kids know the basics of gun safety, which he said is crucial in a state such as Alaska where many families own firearms.
"It's part of the Alaska culture," Milliron said. "As such it's important that we teach our students how to behave appropriately and safely if a firearm is introduced to a room that they are in."
Milliron said about 1,600 sixth-grade students have gone through the program, which is largely run by community volunteers who teach the various classes and pay for supplies.
Last year, Juneau's other middle school, Dzantik'i Heeni, began a similar outdoor education program, Milliron said.
Volunteer Ken Coate said it was important to teach younger kids firearm safety to counter the bad examples they see in on TV and in the movies and to prevent needless accidents.
"The four basic rules of firearms safety: Muzzle control, keep your finger off the trigger, always have a firearm unloaded until you're ready to fire it, know your target and what's beyond it," he said.
Milliron said students come away from the program with a genuine understanding of how to be safe around guns.
Similar gun safety efforts exist statewide in more rural villages, but none like what's available at Floyd Dryden, according to Anchorage-based Alaska Fish and Game Hunter education coordinator Lee Rogers.
Rogers said a few middle schools in Anchorage have started offering similar outdoor education classes electives for students, but there's been resistance from parents with a "big city philosophy" that "guns are bad."
Milliron said only a handful of parents have ever complained about having guns in school around 11-year-old students, but his name has shown up on an anti-gun blog after media accounts of the program.
He added that the state has been supportive his efforts. Milliron said former Gov. Frank Murkowski volunteered to help teach while governor and Gov. Sarah Palin also indicated she wanted to help.
Not far from Floyd Dryden at the state Fish and Game's indoor firing range Wednesday, students were effusive in their praise for the program, especially since it meant not having to attend regular classes.
"This is way more fun," said Christian Reyes, "This is an experience of a lifetime ... to be able to get out of school and shoot."
"It's awesome," echoed Griffin Young, shortly after hitting a couple bull's-eyes at the target range. "It's probably the greatest thing that's happened to me in my life."
Contact reporter Alan Suderman at 523-2268 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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