Yolonda's first lesson about guns was almost her last.

It happened two years ago while she was taking a nap, the third-grader said."I felt something very, very hard under the mattress," she said. "I picked up the mattress and I saw a big old gun and it almost went off."

In the Dade County public schools, children are no strangers to guns. Thirty-eight students died of gunshot wounds in the first 11 months of 1988.

The public school system has gotten into the business of gun education, launching a "Say No to Guns" program modeled after the "Just Say No To Drugs" campaign.

"It's just another `no,' " said Bill Harris, safety and driver education supervisor with the Dade County Public Schools.

Superintendent Joseph Fernandez issued a memo alerting staff that gun safety would be a priority. Last Dec. 9 was proclaimed "Gun Safety Awareness Day."

Principals in all the county's schools delivered messages on firearm safety to kick off the program, which was supported by posters.

At Yolonda's elementary school in Miami's Overtown, notorious as the scene of civil disturbances, high crime rates have given the neighborhood an atmosphere reminiscent of frontier days in the last century.

"It's very scary sometimes," first grade teacher Sandra Banky said. "Some of the parents come in and they're actually carrying guns."

One of her students, a 6-year-old, has been instructed in how to use a gun by a guardian, who told the teacher, "If they're left alone they have to know how to protect themselves."

Harris said the typical gun casualty is "a 10- to 12-year-old male playing with a gun with a friend at one of their houses."

When the county decided to address the issue of gun safety, the school board checked with other school systems and learned there were no other programs.