Next week as classes begin, Northwood Kensett secondary principal Keith Fritz will include something in his fall assembly speech that’s not heard often in Iowa schools.
“I mention, in addition to ‘we have the right to search your lockers, guys, we’re going to have a great year this year,” he says. "Those of you who hunt, federal firearms regulations prohibit you from having those on campus.’ And that’s all it takes, they just comply.”
The idea of firearms on school grounds is rare. According to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources only 17 districts allow guns during the school day for hunter certification or safety classes. Principal Fritz explains strict rules are in place.
“We take all measures for safety from the policy requiring layers of permission for bringing firearms on campus to our security system to having people we trust provide this type of education," he says.
The trusted person in charge those classes is long time Worth County naturalist Dan Block.
“This is a hunter safety class designed for teaching you rules and get you certified so you can get a hunting license,” he says. "But I also try and put a fair amount of gun safety into it, so in case they are confronted with a gun, like little brother pulls a gun out of the drawer or I found a gun in the corner, give some hands-on experience with how to be safe with firearms.”
Block says the program is part of the PE curriculum for all 7th graders. It lasts about a month and involves written tests as well as shooting of air rifles in the gymnasium.
Ten-year-old Andrew Grunhavd will soon be one of Block’s students. He says he understands the importance of being taught the correct method of handling guns.
“Because if you don’t, someone could get hurt while you’re out hunting, and I don’t want them to get hurt,” he says.
Andrew’s father Andy Grunhavd is a Worth County sheriff’s deputy. He says he worries that some video games may desensitize those who play them when it comes to firearms.
“Those games are getting more realistic so it looks like it’s real people they’re shooting," he says “It just kind of numbs them to the situation and that’s just not a good thing. We need to make sure they understand that it’s not a toy like the video games and the consequences are dire."
Naturalist Dan Block agrees and says nothing reinforces the idea of safety training more quickly than when an accident occurs.
“We have had unusual firearms accidents in North Iowa over the years,” he explains. “We’ve had a couple of suicides of relatively young people and unexplained firearms deaths, so I think safety training is a good part about being around firearms."
Principal Fritz says parents are allowed to have their kids opt out of the training, although in more than 20 years no one has. He describes the instruction as a deliberate approach to something that’s second nature in that part of the state.
“I’ve never seen a kid light up and go 'wow, now I know how to hurt somebody or do damage or anything like that'. It’s all very responsibly done,” he says. "It really looks and feels like a great science lab or a really engaging writing project.”
The Iowa DNR hunter safety classes can also be taken online, but coordinator Megan Wisecup says 60 percent of the instruction takes place in the classroom. Although just 17 schools offer it as part of the curriculum, 60 school buildings around the state are used for night time or weekend certification classes.