“There’s a what in the school basement?” That was the reaction many people had in November when test results revealed high levels of lead in the Marion Street Elementary School in Lynbrook, N.Y., emanating from a basement rifle range.
It seems that for decades, the Lynbrook High School rifle teams used it for target practice and competitiona notion that alarmed parents who had fresh memories of school shootings in places like Littleton, Colo., and Springfield, Ore.
School officials in Lynbrook headed off a petition drive by parents and closed the rifle range following a three-day cleanup; the team now practices at a range off campus. It follows the lead of schools in places like Chicago, Arlington, Va., and elsewhere, where school-based rifle teams and rifle ranges have been shut down.
Charles Tacke, a rifle coach on Long Island for nearly 25 years, says there’s no cause for alarm, contending that instructing students in the proper use of firearms is the surest prevention for tragedy.
“When people ask me about the issue of safety, I usually turn the question around,” Tacke said. “How do you take out the only program that teaches gun safety and the proper way to handle a gun?”
He criticized the decision made by officials in the Chicago school system, where Junior ROTC marksmanship classes were dropped in 33 schools.
“It shows there was an anti-gun bias in Chicago,” Tacke said. “They didn’t look at the value of the program.”
In explaining his decision, Chicago Schools CEO Paul Vallas wondered: “How can we have a zero tolerance policy that severely disciplines students for being caught with a gun in school or on the street, when we’re teaching marksmanship?”
Kenneth Trump, who operates National School Safety and Security Services in Cleveland and has advised hundreds of districts around the country on safety, concedes that while rifle team members may act properly and receive good training, he worries about the mere presence of weapons on campus.
“I think we need to very narrowly focus on the issue of safety of the children in a school setting,” he said. “There’s a greater risk for accidental injuries, and the potential for theft or misuse.”
Approximately 500 schools nationwide have rifle teams, including 26 in New York, according to Coaches Directory, a Missouri-based high school sports publisher.
Tacke remembers that when he was in high school on Long Island in the mid-60s, there were nearly three dozen rifle teams. He believes many of the school-based teams were established between the first and second world wars in conjunction with civil defense efforts.
Today, with the Cold War a fading memory, only nine rifle teams remain on Long Island. Tacke blamed a number of factors for the decline, starting with the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert, and Martin Luther King Jr.
“I’d guess you’d say there was an anti-gun attitude that developed,” he said.
With the “zero tolerance” policies in most districts today, school rifle teams would seem to be something of an anachronism. Still, many education groups have steered clear from adopting any formal stance on the issue.
For instance, the national Parent Teachers Association, headquartered in Chicago, has no official position on the topic of school-based rifle ranges, said spokeswoman Patty Yoxall.
Lynbrook High School, 9 Union Ave., Lynbrook, NY 11563; (516) 593-6300.