Students in Apache Junction will learn about gun safety starting next school year, but the message they hear might be unlike anything else being taught nationwide.
The new gun safety program, being developed by the Apache Junction Police Department and the Apache Junction Unified School District, has already caught the attention of the U.S. Department of Justice — which agreed last week to provide a $50,000 grant for the program's development.
"The outline we want to take is to hold parents responsible," said Jeff Robinson, the resource officer at Apache Junction High School and one of three police officers working on the project. Working with Robinson are Thom Parker and Joe Schikany, resource officers at Thunder Mountain and Desert Shadows middle schools.
In the Apache Junction program, children at all eight district schools will learn about proper gun storage so they can talk with their parents about the way weapons are kept in their homes. That way, children will be less likely to encounter the temptation of an unlocked weapon.
"We definitely need to have the kids hold the parents accountable," Parker said.
Current programs place responsibility for gun safety on the child. The National Rifle Association's Eddie Eagle GunSafe Program, for example, teaches children that if they find a gun, they should leave the area and tell an adult.
Schikany said such an approach has merit, but research shows that many children who have heard the message will still seek out and play with a gun when they are left unsupervised.
"The curiosity factor still overrode what they had learned, and they still went and played with the gun," Schikany said.
Another unique feature of the Apache Junction program is that it will include children from kindergarten through 12th grade. The NRA's GunSafe program extends only through third grade.
Robinson, who helps coach the high school's Naval Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps air rifle team, said older students have access to guns and need to be trained to think about their younger siblings.
Senior Sean Riley, 17, a member of the air rifle team, said including older students in the program makes sense.
"A lot of older kids think they know more and can handle anything, and they don't think the rules apply to them," Riley said.
Eventually, the three school resource officers said their program will include coloring books, video presentations and public service announcements that will be shown on the city's cable channel. The program might even include a robot to catch the attention of younger students.
But for now, the officers said they are still conducting research.
"It's going to become a yearly thing, where this is always going to be part of their curriculum," Parker said.