“He was young, and he killed the principal because he didn’t know how to solve his problem with her,” said Ana Lucía Cascante Acuña, an advisor to the vice minister of Paz. “This is a wake-up call. So far this year we reached 4,000 kids with our program. We want to end the year with 8,000.”
The Ministerio de Justicia y Paz is sponsoring a campaign called Escuelas Libres de Armas to educate elementary school students about gun violence. First, second and third graders at the Escuela Naciones Unidas in San José saw the program Wednesday.
“We tell them the negative effects of using weapons. We try to explain to them that guns are not for their defense but can have this super negative effect that is death,” said Ms. Cascante.
In the beginning students are allowed to trade in toy weapons for coloring books with built-in activities about gun safety. The following presentation featured a video and interactive question-and-answer session about how to handle confrontations.
“We exchange toy guns for artistic products such as coloring pencils and crayons. In some cases people have brought real guns and said, ‘I have a real gun, can you give me two notebooks.’ We’re trying to explain to them that they have a lot of alternatives to play with,” said Ms. Cascante.
Presenters tell the students about kids who have confused toy guns with real guns. This is important because many families in Costa Rica have guns, making them assessable to children, officials said. The youth thinks the guns are normal and essential to possess, said the ministry.
“They look at it as a natural thing, but we explain to them that it is not natural. We do this because we know they are kids and they want to play with guns. There have been a lot of cases where guns have killed kids,” said Ms. Cascante.
The ministry targets the younger kids because they want to plant a seed in their heads that guns are bad. By the age of 10, many Costa Rican youngsters have already manipulated a gun, and by high school teenagers own guns, the ministry said. Some of them even bring their guns to school, said the ministry.
“In high schools our message is different. We teach them to solve problems in a specific way and give alternatives that are not violent.”
So far the Escuelas Libres de Armas program has visited 30 schools. Friday the presenters will help paint a large peace mural called Graffiti de Paz with students from Escuela Manuela Santa Maria in Alajuela.
According to Ms. Cascante, the program receives support from both the ministry and the community.
“Vice Minister Max Ramírez always goes with us. It is great because we have great support from a great leader and he’s great with the kids.”
All the artistic materials passed out to the children Wednesday were a donation from the United Nations, and the juice and snacks were donated by the Patronato Nacional de la Infancia.