- James Swan
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On March 18, 1,437 elementary, junior high and high school students poured into Louisville's Commonwealth Convention Center, and they were armed.
They were there to compete in the second annual National Archery in the Schools Championship.
The students came primarily from Kentucky, but also from Georgia, Alabama and Iowa, states that also have recently begun to offer archery as part of their Physical Education curriculum.
A number of minority students participated, and two contestants were in wheelchairs. The youngest competitors this year were in the K-2 grade bracket.
The explosion of young Robin Hoods is the result of a program initiated in 2002 in Kentucky schools called the National Archery in the Schools Program.
"When we started the Archery in the Schools program, our goal was to have it in 120 schools in three years," said Roy Grimes, deputy commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, who has is the guiding force for the program.
With equipment donated by archery manufacturers, they began in 2002 with 22 schools, teaching the educators in a 12-hour National Archery Association archery-training program.
Two years later Grimes reports 214 Kentucky elementary, junior high and high schools using Archery in the Schools and loving it.
Students shoot at targets placed in front of a sturdy net in a gymnasium at 10 meters and 15 meters. But the kids don't just learn to shoot a bow, like at summer camp.
During the two-week Archery in the Schools course, the kids learn Olympic-style target archery, as well as archery history, safety, technique, equipment, mental concentration and self-improvement.
Safety is of paramount importance, and there have been no injuries to any students in the program. This is in sharp contrast to sports like football, basketball, baseball, volleyball and track, within which injuries are common and sometimes serious.
When the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources surveyed 1,600 students during the pilot program, they found that 60 percent of students who completed the program wanted to become target archers and 38 percent wanted to try bowhunting.
There is no scientific psychological study, yet, but teachers and parents offer anecdotal evidence that the Archery in the Schools program improves student's self-esteem.
Shooting sports like archery can be a great equalizer for students who may not be large, especially strong, fast or even agile.
For shooting sports, you have to develop mental concentration and eye-hand coordination.
When Archery in the Schools students were recently surveyed about their most favorite physical education activities, 80 percent rated archery at the top.
Many schools are strapped for money these days and cutting programs, but thanks to support from the archery industry, schools can purchase the $4,800 equipment kits necessary for the program for $2,400.
However, many schools are getting the equipment free because sponsors are stepping to the plate. In January, the National Wild Turkey Federation donated $100,000 to support Archery in the Schools.
The Archery in the Schools program is spreading. Arizona, Wyoming, West Virginia, Alabama and Georgia have started pilot programs. Ohio and Illinois are training teachers. A half-dozen other states are interested.
Excitement about the program raises a larger question: Why teach kids to use weapons?
As opposed to many sports, where kids clown around, shooting sports programs are designed with "zero tolerance" for recklessness. This attitude helps teach discipline and self-control, like few other sports.
Montana school psychologist Noelle Naiden reports she has taught archery to a select group of kids with attention deficit disorder and finds they are better able to manage their energy as their archery proficiency develops.
Archery in the Schools is not the only such program underway.
Some 4,000 junior and senior high school students from 40 states are involved in the National Shooting Sports Scholastic Clay Target program. In 2002 there were 500 high school students competing at the Grand American for the National High School Shooting Championship. A similar program is offered for rifle shooting.
4-H has long been a leader in teaching kids about archery and firearms. The 4-H National High School Invitational Shooting Championship will be staged June 29 to July 2 in Columbia, Mo.
Boy Scouts of America conduct a national program designed to help youth learn gun safety and use. Cub Scouts shoot BB guns. Boy Scouts can learn to shoot rifles, shotguns and muzzleloaders. Venturers can also learn handguns.
If you have kids who are interested, you can download the target used for qualifying to the 2004 USA junior shooting team.
Big Brothers and Big Sisters also is getting in the act. A survey by Kansas Big Brothers and Big Sisters found that 65 percent of the boys awaiting matches wanted to learn target shooting, hunting, archery or fishing. This high level of interest has prompted Pheasants Forever to get behind the program.
The Congressional Sportsmen's Foundation reports that Colorado Governor Owens recently signed H 1032, which extends discounts for the state's resident youth small- and big-game hunting license fees. With a parent, Colorado kids can now pick up a resident small-game license for $1 and a resident big-game license (deer, elk and antelope) for $10.
In response to the recent rash of non-gang-related school shootings, a number of schools across the country have installed "zero tolerance" policies where kids can be expelled for even pointing fingers at each other.
The safety and success of programs like Archery in the Schools, the Scholastic Clay Target Program and other similar efforts, suggests that giving kids a chance to develop maturity by learning to use guns and bows in an adult, responsible manner, is a much more positive approach than trying to operate on the fantasy that you can erase all aggressive energies out of them a practice that may conceivably create more anxiety and tension.
James Swan who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click here to purchase a copy.
To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.
Teaching kids about arms may be a much more effective way to reduce violence than 'zero tolerance'