Between media coverage, safety announcements and Amber Alerts, nowadays both parents and children are aware of the reality of kidnappings. In order to respond to growing parent concern, the Loudoun County Department of Fire, Rescue and Emergency Management is offering a series of escape schools where children and their parents can learn how to recognize, avoid and escape from dangerous situations.
Ninety people attended the first two sessions held Sunday, April 3. Following the strong response from families, the fire and rescue department added additional sessions through the spring and summer.
The escape school, which is designed for children between the ages of 6 and 12, is child-friendly said instructor Amy Shaw.
"The program is easy to learn and easy to remember," Shaw said. "We try to teach the techniques in a non-threatening manner and in a way the kids will enjoy."
THE DIGNITY MEMORIAL Escape School is a national program that was founded in 1996 by a network of funeral, cremation and cemetery providers. Locally, the program is sponsored by Shaw's Stonewall Memory Gardens cemetery in Manassas, Va.
"Unfortunately there is an increase in this problem," Shaw said. "It makes these programs important."
In Loudoun County there have been no children kidnapped by strangers, Kraig Troxell, spokesperson for the Sheriff's Office, said. While the exact number of current or recent kidnappings nationally is not known, the best estimates comes from incidence studies conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Alicia Zumbrum, communications assistant for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said. In October 2002, the department released the second National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children (NISMART-2). The study found that in 1999 58,200 children were abducted by nonfamily members. Of those, only 115 children were the victims of what the study calls "the most serious, long-term nonfamily abductions called 'stereotypical kidnappings.'"
While the escape schools focus on stranger kidnappings, Shaw said it is not a program that warns children about strangers in general.
"This is not a stranger-danger program," she said, "because the children might need help from another stranger."
What the program does do, Shaw said, is it teaches children how to make a judgment about a person, based on action not looks. You cannot necessarily tell the quality of a person simply by how they are dressed, Shaw said.
"Our buzz phrase is 'Be smart, not scared,'" she said.
THE CLASSES being offered by the county's fire and rescue department are a combination of classroom instruction and hands-on practice of the escape techniques, Joy Dotson, the department's public education manager, said.
The children will be taught various escape techniques, such as the windmill, which teaches children how to get away if someone grabs their arm, and the Velcro technique, which teaches children how to latch onto a stranger and take control of the situation.
"We want to teach the children things and adult wouldn't expect from them," Shaw said. "Adults don't expect a child to know these techniques."
In addition to teaching the children escape techniques, the fire and rescue department gives children a chance to practice calling 911.
"We have a machine that allows the child to practice answering basic questions that a dispatcher might ask," Dotson said.
An investigator from the Sheriff's Office will also be present at each session of the escape school to inform children and parents about Internet safety.
"What's really going to be addressed is the dangers that can be posed in chat rooms," Troxell said. "We want to make people realize that a child having a computer in their room is the same thing as having a stranger in their house."
PARENTS ARE required to attend the escape school with their children and encouraged to sit with their children in order to facilitate communication, Dotson said.
"We want them to learn together so they can go home and talk about it together," she said. "They need to practice [the techniques] with their kids."
Practice is one of the biggest principals of the escape school, Dotson added.
"The techniques need to be practiced so [the children] don't have to think about it even in a dangerous situation," she said. "We want it to become natural for them."
The Loudoun County Department of Fire, Rescue and Emergency Management will hold escape schools May 8, at the Arcola Volunteer Fire and Rescue station; July 16, at the Hamilton Safety Center and Sept. 10, at the department's training center. There will be a 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. session each day. For more information or to register call 703-737-8093.