Paul Hamby waved a set of polypropylene long underwear in front of a classroom of sixth-graders Thursday at Floyd Dryden Middle School.
"Guys, I want you to say it with me, 'hy-po-ther-mia,' " said Hamby, a firefighter and emergency medical technician.
"Hy-po-ther-mia," the class sang back.
"Leave the cotton at home," Hamby said. Wearing layers of clothes made of synthetic fibers helps prevent death and injury from severe cold, he explained.
Hamby was one of nearly 70 instructors teaching classes to 240 sixth-grade students at Floyd Dryden as part of a two-day program to teach safety in the wilderness. Subjects included outdoor survival skills, orienteering, water safety and hunter education, in which students learned about firearm safety and hunting wild game.
"We want the training to be ethical and enlightening, for consumptive and nonconsumptive users (of the wilderness)," said program director Ken Coate, stressing that safety was one of the program's major focuses.
Coate taught a segment at the Hank Harmon Rifle Range, where bundled sixth-graders flexed cold trigger fingers as they waited to have a turn with a .22-caliber rifle Thursday.
Coate, a tall, serious outdoorsman, instructed the students to roll up earplugs and stuff them in their ears. He then directed the first group of shooters to don protective glasses and approach volunteer shooting instructors clad in snowmachine suits, camouflage hunting jackets and ball caps.
Each instructor joined a student at a picnic table where the rifles were lying in a line. Under the guidance of instructor Frank Rich, pig-tailed Shelby Oelklaus, 11, clutched her rifle and aimed it at the fluorescent orange target. This would be her first time firing a gun, she said, and she was excited. Many of the students agreed that shooting was the most intriguing part of the program.
"I think it will be a lot of fun," Oelklaus said. "But you have to be very safe and pay attention."
Oelklaus' mother, Susan, watched her daughter pull the trigger. Students' rifles popped like bottle rockets. Oelklaus and her husband hunt, but their daughters are not allowed to touch the guns until they take the firearm safety class in school.
"When our older daughter took this last year and got her hunter's card, she was so proud," Oelklaus said.
Some people in the community are less enthused about the idea of children shooting rifles as part of a school-sanctioned outdoor-skills class.
Karen Lawfer works for the state with the SafeKids program, which aims to reduce injuries among children. She testified at a recent Juneau School Board meeting against the gun-education portion of the outdoor-skills program at Floyd Dryden, saying gun education has not been proven to reduce gun-related injuries. The schools, she said, should not encourage kids to use guns.
"The gun thing, it's just opening a Pandora's box that doesn't have to be open," Lawfer said. "Let's really look at what these kids are getting hurt by and what the risks are in Juneau. Let's design a program around that."
Last year, the parents of nine students at Floyd Dryden opted out of the gun-education program, and their children had study hall instead of shooting. This year, only one sixth-grade student didn't shoot. The week before the program, Coate had an informational meeting for parents. No one raised any objections, he said. When asked if they owned firearms, every parent in the room raised a hand.
"What you have in Juneau is that firearms are prevalent," Coate said. "Any kid that has a TV set in their house has been educated from the time they could see in the inappropriate use of firearms. What we are trying to teach is that just because you saw it on 'NYPD Blue' doesn't mean it's appropriate."
Coate said he hoped students who learned something about firearms in the class would be more responsible in the future when they were in an unsupervised situation with a gun.
He also said the outdoor-skills class taught a variety of things about the outdoors that could be useful, even life-saving, to young Alaskans, whether or not they were hunters.
Inside a small lodge at the shooting range, students crouched over maps of Juneau and Douglas Island. Roger Birk of the U.S. Forest Service lectured them on topography and then passed out work sheets that asked students to compare the elevation maps to pictures of mountains and hills.
"Do we get credit for this?" asked a young man in the back, apparently noticing how much the map work sheets resembled homework.
"You get out in the woods sometime with a map and compass and you'll get credit for this," Birk said. "If you don't get lost."
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