Ballarat region schools' gun excursion sparks debate

BAD TIMING or an over-reaction? Ballarat High School and Beaufort Secondary College’s joint excursion to a gun club gathered momentum in national debate yesterday as morning and evening light news programs weighed into the issue.

Social networking sites also published mixed responses to the outing, which was an optional end-of-year activity for students in years seven, eight and nine.

Students were taken to Beaufort Gun Club for lessons in clay target shooting – a sport in which Ballarat’s own Russell Mark is a multiple Olympic gold medallist.

Fuelling contention, the excursion was made two days after the United States’ Sandy Hook massacre in Connecticut when 28 people, mostly elementary school children, were killed.

Ballarat High School principal Gary Palmer yesterday defended his school’s decision to go ahead with the activity.

Mr Palmer said it was an annual trip to a clay target shooting range and took place with full parental permission and support, and reiterated it was an optional activity.

The 35 participating students started with a one-hour workshop on gun safety and worked with Australian Clay Target Association instructors with a ratio of one instructor per student.

By the end of school hours yesterday, the school had not received any parent complaints.

“We have many rural and regional students, and the best way for them to learn about handling firearms safely is with qualified instructors,” Mr Palmer said.

“We run this excursion every year and have done for the past decade, and it’s approved by our school council each year.

“The teacher leading the excursion spoke with the students [about Sandy Hook] before it commenced and the students indicated they still wanted the excursion to go ahead.”

Mr Palmer said the school sent its condolences to the families involved in the American tragedy.

Victorian Education Department confirmed Ballarat High School had followed correct procedure, having parents sign consent forms.

Education Minister Martin Dixon yesterday questioned the excursion’s timing.

This drew a fiery response from Olympian Russell Mark, who took to Twitter to write that he was embarrassed to be a Victorian when Mr Dixon “criticises kids for going clay target shooting” and that Mr Dixon should “get a real job”.

But Mr Dixon did not criticise the school and acknowledged parent and school council permission.

“Personally, I don’t think it was an appropriate activity given the recent school shootings in the United States,” Mr Dixon said.

“I’m sure in the future the school will think more closely about these sorts of activities and the sensitivity surrounding the recent events.”

Gun Control Australia secretary David Stack told News Limited the excursion was idiotic and insensitive following the US massacre.

Victorian Clay Target Association president Mal Dyson said clay target shooting lessons for secondary school students were common across the state.

Mr Dyson said students were only permitted to use guns after safety lessons and schools could not “just go and do” a shooting session.

More than 290 students contested south-west regional championships this year.

Beaufort Secondary College did not respond to The Courier.