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Mock abduction prepares youngsters for real thing

SOUTH

POINT-- It has never happened before in Lawrence County: a child abducted by a stranger. But it has happened elsewhere and this summer, child abductions made national headlines over and over again.

South Point police Tuesday afternoon took a different approach to child safety education. They staged a mock abduction, with the help of parents, students and South Point Elementary School After School mall staff.

South Point Police Sgt. Jean Acquista, who developed the plan, said the purpose was to educate children on staying safe.

"We want them to be aware," Acquista said. "They've got to be alert to what goes on around them, and tell an adult if they see someone or something that they think isn't right."

"We also want them to learn not to be afraid of police officers," South Point police officer Jerry Gibson said. "We're there to help them."

The children were gathered in the school's multi-purpose room when a man entered and began circulating among the kids. He selected an 8-year-old boy and persuaded the child to leave school with him.

The "abductor" was actually South Point police officer Jimmy Howard. The child, third grader Cody Houchin, had met Howard prior to Tuesday, and had his parents' permission to take part in the mock abduction. The children were told in advance that something would happen, but they didn't know who would be involved.

After Howard and Houchin were out of the building, teachers asked the students where the boy had gone.

South Point officers led the children in an exercise of trying to determine what the "abductor" looked like, and what the "victim" was wearing when he was taken.

"The man was wearing a blue After School Mall jacket," one child spoke up.

"He had black hair," another said.

"No, he had gray hair," another child countered.

"It was black and gray," said a third child.

Armed with laptop computers and specially designed software, officers used the information to compile a composite drawing of the "intruder".

The idea was to make the kids think about they had seen, and show them how vital this information is to law enforcement when they are trying to find a missing child and the person who took them.

"I think he was tall and big," one child said of Howard.

"He was 7 feet tall and weighed 60 pounds," another child added, in an attempt to describe the tall, muscular Howard.

After Howard returned with Houchin, the officer passed along some child safety do's and dont's.

"Never go with a stranger unless your parents or another adult in charge, such as a teacher, gives you permission," Howard said. "Tell someone if you think a person is watching you, following you or trying to get you to go with them."

Howard told the kids than approximately 200,000 kids in the United States are abducted each year. Of those kids who are taken, 98 percent are returned home safely.

" Always walk in pairs, don't walk alone," Howard told them.

"What if the person has a gun?" one child inquired.

"You don't want to confront someone who has a gun," Howard said. "But look for chances to get away from them."

"Did any of you notice that Cody didn't put up much of a fight?" Principal Nancy Shuff asked, noting that Cody had "gone willingly" with a stranger who promised him ice cream. There had been no drama, no force, no weapon. Cody had simply believed what the stranger told him.

"They may tell you things to get you to go with them. Don't ever do it."

Each child got a packet from the police department, filled with a poster and safety information. There were also goodies for the parents to keep: a home fingerprinting kit and a collection container for a hair sample from the child, which would provide vital DNA information in the event of a kidnapping.

"This Thursday is trick or treat," South Point Assistant Police Chief Matt Vance reminded the children. "Remember these rules when you go out for Halloween."