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Third-graders learn realities about guns

Many kids have a hard time distinguishing fantasy from reality. When it comes to guns, that confusion can be dangerous.

So this year the Pinellas County School District has adopted a firearm safety program for all third-graders.

The program, which is led by MORE HEALTH Inc., began in Hillsborough County two years ago. Instructors from the nonprofit outreach group use a video and hands-on materials to teach children how to protect themselves from firearms.

The district adopted the program after MORE HEALTH asked if it could expand educational outreach programs to Pinellas, said Peggy Johns, curriculum supervisor for prekindergarten through 12th-grade health education.

Johns said she trusted the organization and thought Pinellas schools needed a consistent firearm safety program for all third-graders.

"We wanted them to realize it's a real-life issue so they could distinguish it from pretend and get accurate information about what a gun does as a machine and what a bullet does to the body," she said.

Karen Pesce, executive director of MORE HEALTH, said third grade is the right age for the lesson.

"It's the perfect age to get the message across and for them to carry the message home," she said.

The lesson is concerned only with firearm safety and is neither progun nor antigun, Pesce said. MORE HEALTH teaches more than 20 different health programs in Hillsborough County.

MORE HEALTH also uses Rachel Ellenberg Schulson's book, Guns: What You Should Know, for each lesson. On Friday, Schulson, who lives in Tennessee, joined the MORE HEALTH team and visited Mildred Helms Elementary School in Largo. She told the students tHat she wrote her book for children like them because she kept reading about school violence.

Her son also influenced her decision.

When he was 3 years old, he chewed his sandwich into the shape of a gun and aimed it at her.

"If he's going to be a gun kid, I'm going to educate him so he knows the difference between toy guns and real guns," Schulson recalled thinking.

She scoured bookstores for firearm safety materials and couldn't find any for young people. So she wrote a book.

At the lesson, Schulson read her book and opened the floor to questions from the third-graders. It was obvious that some children were confused by film and video images of guns.

"If a bullet was shot at you, could you put your fingers tight together and catch it?" asked Tyler Sweethand, 9.

Schulson explained that the feat would be impossible because bullets could travel up to 5000 feet per second.

After her presentation the children watched a short video, which outlined what they should do if they come across a gun.

In all of the school safety programs, law enforcement officers visit each class to reinforce the lesson.

Largo police Detective Joe Coyle stressed the importance of assuming that all guns are real. He showed the children five guns in a display case and asked them to point out the fake ones. Three volunteers pointed out fakes before he told them that all were real.

Melissa Cura, Pinellas County coordinator of MORE HEALTH, led the core lesson. She emphasized the difference between reality and fantasy, such as video games and movies. Then she used X-rays, a skeletal replica and an apron decorated with pictures of human organs to show the children how damaging bullets could be.

Cura finished up the lesson by reiterating what children should do if they come across a gun. She taught them a dance that would remind them to stop, keep their hands away from the gun, leave the area and find an adult.

After the lesson, Alex Eberle, 8, said he learned some surprising things about bullets.

"I wouldn't be thinking that it could be going that fast or it could do that much damage to the body," he said.

Lauren Hawhee, 8, said she learned what to do if she saw a gun.

"I would run away, and I would tell an adult," she said. But she admitted that she might be a "little curious."

MORE HEALTH Inc. will present a firearm safety lesson for parents and children of all ages from 6 to

7 pm. Thursday at the Sanderlin Center, 2335 22nd Ave. S, St. Petersburg. For information, call MORE HEALTH at (813) 258-6366.