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Posted: 6/15/2007 3:06:22 PM EDT

Parents raise concerns over military visit to school

The Telegram

Promotion of Canadian Forces Day is coming under fire from a Holyrood parent.

On Wednesday, a crew from CFS St. John's visited Holy Cross elementary in the Conception Bay town with a LAV III (light armoured vehicle) and Jeep-like machine called a G-wagon.

The visit was part of a promotion for Canadian Forces Day, an event set for Saturday at Pleasantville.

Parent Jean Dandenault doesn't think the presentation was appropriate.

He claimed his nine-year-old daughter, Juliette, was shown, among other things, how to fire an unloaded gun.

"For the military to have the army come to the school and show this, without any consent from parents, seems really off the wall," said Dandenault.

Capt. Mark Gough, a public affairs officer with the military, admitted the soldiers had a disabled C-9 machine gun with them.

He said a student saw it and asked to look at it.

The child then wanted to see how heavy it was.

The soldier, Gough said, held it in his hands and let the child touch it and get a feel for what it was like.

"At no time was the student given the machine gun by himself," he said.

"The soldier had control over it the whole time."

According to Gough, other students then asked to do the same and the soldier allowed it.

"Even before the soldier allowed the first student to handle the weapon," Gough said, "he asked permission of the principal and the teachers that were there, if they saw anything wrong with that, and they said no."

Gough said he is not trying to place blame on Holy Cross staff. But principal Robin McGrath said he didn't consent to the activity.

He said he didn't even know guns would be part of the presentation until he saw a student touch one and then he quickly brought the presentation to a close. McGrath said he called Eastern School District to ensure such an incident didn't happen at another school.

But the gun wasn't the only thing that upset concerned parent Dandenault.

He said children are easily influenced.

"It's like this is a type of tactic of recruitment," he said.

Gough countered that recruitment was definitely not part of the rationale behind the visit.

He said similar activities are conducted across the country all the time in order to educate people about what the military does.

Allowing people to speak with soldiers and see equipment, he said, is meant to give them a better understanding of what Canadians are doing in places like Afghanistan.

"By allowing a child or somebody to feel the weight of a C-9 machine gun, it will give them an idea of what some poor soldier is doing slogging out in the heat over in Kandahar. In addition to that machine-gun, he's carrying a helmet and body armour and all sorts of other equipment, 50-60, pounds in some cases."

McGrath sees the educational value of the visit and said it is no different than having the RCMP come in. But in no way, he said, does he promote weapons.

Dandenault said the school should have informed parents about the military visit. At least then he would have had a choice of not letting his child attend.

McGrath said he didn't have time to send information home about the visit. He said the military confirmed their visit Wednesday, saying they were on their way.

"At that time, I had to make a judgment call," he said.

Not all parents disagree with the principal's decision. Dandenault lodged the only complaint.  

But Sean Power would liked to have been informed, too.

"It would have been nice if we had known, because there are parents who are dead set against that stuff," said Power.

He didn't mind his nine-year-old daughter, Brittney, learning about the military though.

The more information his kids receive, he said, the better.

Power said his daughter didn't learn how to fire guns, but she was allowed to board the LAV 3.

He said he wished he had known about the visit beforehand so he could take pictures.

Because of the concern expressed by Dandenault, Gough said the military did not include personal weapons in presentations Thursday or today.

"These things are always difficult," he admitted. "There are always folks that have some concerns, whether it is driving armoured vehicles near a school or allowing kids to take a look at or handle weapons. When people do raise concerns, we have to respect them, and that's why we decided not to bring the personal weapons out to show the kids."

Thursday morning, The Telegram attended similar military visits at two Conception Bay South elementary schools, Upper Gullies and St. Edward's.

Soldiers and teachers at both schools kept the students under close watch.

The only weapons visible were the ones attached to the LAV 3, which were far out of reach.

The common reaction to the vehicles was, "Cool!"

The students all appeared enthusiastic, although some jokingly told the soldier sitting at the LAV 3's gun not to shoot.

The majority of the children The Telegram spoke to have little knowledge of the war in Afghanistan, aside from knowing a battle was happening.

There were some, though, who had family in the military, like Josh Chaytor, who attends the Upper Gullies school.

His Uncle Darrell is in Afghanistan and he said he's learned a lot about the war from his mother's brother.

"I gave him my favorite dinky (to take to Afghanistan). ... He gave it to another little girl because she was paralysed."
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