Eddie Eagle, the feathered mascot of the National Rifle Association's gun safety program, has been grounded by Frederick County school officials in a flap over whether the pro-gun lobbying group's materials should be used at a time of heightened concern over school violence.

Sheriff's deputies in the central Maryland county had used the NRA-sponsored safety program with little complaint in Frederick schools since 1994. But they ran into trouble late last month when they asked county commissioners for permission to apply for a $2,650 NRA Foundation grant to buy an Eddie Eagle costume to use in school programs.

"I said I'd rather spend my own private money on some other safety material for the schools before I'd accept one penny from the NRA," said County Commissioner John L. Thompson Jr. (R), who described himself as "a gun owner who endorses 90 percent of what the NRA says" but finds the other 10 percent "too extreme."

Thompson's objections, and those from parents and school administrators, led to the suspension of Eddie from Frederick County schools this week in order to allow officials to look more closely at whether they want the NRA teaching students about gun safety.

The NRA program has been endorsed by governors and state legislatures--including Virginia's--across the country. But in more recent months, the Colorado legislature and others have begun distancing themselves from the program, making the cartoon character a focal point for the politically charged issue of children and guns.

A recent segment of the ABC news magazine "20/20" placed unloaded guns in an empty room and brought in children who had just been through the Eddie program. Some steered clear of the weapons while others immediately went over and touched them.

"In the wake of Columbine, educators are looking at gun safety classes, even ones that tell kids to stay away from guns, and wondering if they don't implicitly endorse gun ownership," said David Bernstein, a spokesman for Handgun Control Inc.

Eddie's boosters, who include people such as Lt. Randy Freysz, of the Frederick County sheriff's office, contend the NRA program is a worthy effort to save lives by keeping children away from guns.

"I started in '94--back when guns weren't a bad word," he said.

The NRA began the Eddie program, targeted at children in kindergarten through 6th grade, in 1988, and it now is used in 10,000 schools across the country, according to John Robbins, manager of communications for NRA general operations. Many police agencies, including 33 in Maryland, use the Eddie pamphlets and videos when they go into schools--in some cases using public money to buy the materials, in others accepting it gratis or through grants from booster groups such as Friends of the National Rifle Association.

In July, Virginia Education Secretary Wilbert Bryant sent a letter urging school superintendents to spread the word about the legislature's endorsement of the Eddie Eagle program. In 1998, Maryland House Speaker Caspar R. Taylor Jr. (D-Allegany) signed a resolution declaring April 20-27 "Eddie Eagle Gun Safety Week" in Maryland, according to the NRA's Web site.

NRA officials say the program is being criticized by people who misunderstand it.

"There are no guns used in the program. . . . It is not a gun-handling program," Robbins said. Eddie's core message, he said, is his advice on what children should do if they see a gun: "STOP! Don't touch. Leave the area. Tell an adult."

"Our only goal is safety in schools," said Jasper Kittrell, safety resource specialist for the Richmond school system, where the curriculum is widely used.

But Kittrell and Frederick sheriff's deputies confirmed that material they distribute includes information for parents, which encourages them to talk about gun safety with their children.

"If your child has toy guns, you may want to use them to demonstrate safe gun handling," the pamphlet says.

"They're training them early to be gun owners and users," Bernstein said.