- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 5, 2001

ANNAPOLIS School boards in Montgomery and Prince George's counties are opposing a General Assembly bill that would require mandatory gun-safety courses be taught in public schools, calling it an unfunded mandate.
Montgomery County school officials said they are concerned the mandate would intrude on time needed for academic matters but expressed support for voluntary gun-safety education at the teacher's option.
Athena Ware, spokeswoman for Prince George's County public schools, said the school system has no curriculum on gun safety, adding that all students are given a copy of the code of conduct, which bans weapons in school.
Although Prince George's opposes the legislation as an unfunded mandate, Ms. Ware said, "if this passes, we will certainly abide by the state board's regulations."
Anne Arundel County's school board has not taken a position on the legislation, school officials said.
"I'm not even sure they are talking about it," said Huntley Cross, Anne Arundel schools' special assistant for alternative programs and safety. He said school officials make it clear to students they will be expelled if they are caught with any weapon at school.
Meanwhile, the state Board of Education, which also opposes the bill, would let parents decline gun-safety education for their children if the bill were to become law, the board's lobbyist, Renee Spence, said yesterday.
The House of Delegates yesterday rejected an amendment that would have allowed parents to opt out of the program an indication that, against the wishes of local school boards, delegates are likely to back the legislation, which is sponsored by House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr.
"I haven't heard anything from my constituents and I haven't heard anything from the Prince George's County school board [supporting the bill]," said Delegate Brian Moe, Prince George's County Democrat and sponsor of the amendment that would have allowed parents to opt out of the program.
But the Senate already has approved by a 41-3 vote a bill that would mandate gun-safety education.
Differences between the bills would have to be resolved, but the sponsors are said to be determined to work out a compromise before the session ends Monday.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening has no problem with the proposal, his spokesman Mike Morrill said.
Ms. Spence said requirements in the bill that the state school board set the program policy and guidelines allows the board to let parents decline all or part of the gun-safety instruction, according to an assistant attorney general. And she said the board is committed to writing such an option into regulations.
"We don't know the way that bill is written … [and] we don't know how many hours would be required," said Delegate Dana Dembrow, Montgomery County Democrat. "The attitude … seems to be 'Trust us,' and I don't. I don't think our job down here is to let staff [write laws]."
Financial analysts estimate it would cost the state $89,000 to start the program by July 1 and $65,000 a year to run the program thereafter. It would cost about $350 per elementary school and $500 per high school in the state.
Six years ago, Montgomery County school officials reviewed, approved and made available the National Rifle Association's "Eddie Eagle" gun-safety program for all second- and third-grade teachers to use if they chose to do so, said Russ Henke, coordinator of health education.
"Our teachers are prepared to respond to any questions students come up with [about guns] and to do it at an age-appropriate level," Mr. Henke said.
But Edward Masood, Montgomery schools' director of arts, health and physical education, said he believes state lawmakers are backing a mandate because it "is politically correct and expedient."
"I have a bigger concern, given all we have to do with Maryland School Performance Assessment Program … and the need to close the achievement gap," Mr. Masood said. "How many [more] kids get killed in cars every day? … More than by guns."
Supporters of the bill argued that Mr. Moe's amendment would make it meaningless.
School boards already have the right to teach gun safety, but only Carroll County has adopted a countywide program, said Delegate Sheila Hixson, Montgomery Democrat.
Delegate Carmen Amedori, Carroll County Republican, said children in urban areas need gun-safety education the most because of the prevalence of weapons but would not get it unless the state requires all schools systems to teach it.
Gun safety could be incorporated into other areas of the curriculum, such as health, and might be taught only one or two days a year, supporters said.
Gun-safety classes are a necessity in these times, said Bill Piercy, Carroll County's assistant supervisor for health education.
"Children these days are exposed to a lot," he said, adding that the county, "like everywhere else," has seen its share of accidental shootings.
In September, under Mr. Piercy's leadership, Carroll County introduced mandatory gun-safety classes in its 38 schools, from kindergarten through 12th grade.
The classes have been developed using elements from safety programs like the "Eddie Eagle" program, Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse and Straight Talk About Gun Risks.
While Mr. Piercy said it is too early to say how successful the program has been, students "appear to be helping each other understand. Hopefully, we'll never have another accidental death in this county."
Vaishali Honawar contributed to this article.

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