Emergency officials give children lessons on safety
URBANA — The force of shouting made students at Urbana's Leal School lean forward collectively: "Stop, I don't know you."
Some students even covered their ears, their classmates shouted so loudly.
After they mastered that phrase, they went on to shout: "Stop, get away from me." And then almost a chant: "Kick, fight, scream, bite; kick, fight, scream, bite."
The students took part in two assemblies in the school's gym Tuesday morning, learning about strangers and what to do if someone tries to lure or grab them.
Officials from the Urbana Fire Department, Police Department and Red Cross addressed the students, separated by younger and older grades, using a light tone and humorous anecdotes.
But they made clear the importance of knowing how to deal with such a situation and avoid it if possible.
Several attempted child abductions were reported in area towns earlier this fall, including at least one in Champaign. There were several attempts about a year ago, as well, in both Champaign and Urbana.
Phil Edwards, the Urbana fire marshal, taught students the phrases to yell, both when running away from a potential abduction (the screaming would alert bystanders that something was wrong, he told them) and the strategy they should remember should someone try to grab them.
Officer Preston James of the Urbana Police Department warned students of tactics people might use to try to lure them, saying they might ask students to come with them to play video games, or say they have a new iPhone 5 for the child.
"Sometimes strangers use fuzzy animals, also," like a puppy or kitten, James told them, or say they're looking for one. Or, they might say they're looking for a child or act like they're hurt.
He encouraged them to find a responsible adult in such a situation and not to follow the unfamiliar adult anywhere.
"Don't even go around a swing set" with the person, he told them. If someone approaches them, they should take two steps back "and get ready to run ... like you're going for gold in the Olympics," he said.
Aqueena Lillard of the Urbana Police Department told the students to stick to their regular walk or bike ride to school, even if they get distracted by talking or playing and are tempted to take a shortcut home. There could be danger in that shortcut, she told them.
She also urged them to take notice of unfamiliar vehicles when they're on their way to or from school and to notice things about them, like their colors or the number of doors they have.
Along those lines, she reminded them not to approach unfamiliar vehicles, and if they're running away from a stranger, to run toward the back of the vehicle, rather than the front. This makes it harder for someone to chase them, she told them.
Lillard also reminded students not to blast music through earphones on their mp3 players and to be aware of their surroundings. If for some reasons they felt scared, she urged students to follow their instincts and run home. She also reminded them to know their addresses and phone numbers, and to call 911 in an emergency.
Kelly Formoso of the Red Cross encouraged students to create a "pass code" with their families, in order to be sure that someone picking them up is trustworthy.
And Leal Principal Spencer Landsman reminded students that if they're expecting someone to pick them up after school, they should wait near him or other school staff members to make sure a responsible adult was watching out for them.
After the assemblies, Landsman said, he sent a note home to parents last week, letting them know students would attend.
Even if it was a bit scary for the students, he said, they still need to learn how to be safe. He compared it with a fire drill or a bus evacuation.
"The kids have to be prepared," Landsman said.