- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 5, 2004

RICHMOND — Grace Kendall knew back in seventh grade that she didn’t want to cut open a preserved frog in biology class.

“I thought there was something really wrong with dissecting a dead animal when I knew there were other options,” she said. “Dissecting something that was killed so we could learn about it was unsettling.”

The teacher allowed her to use a computer alternative, and she has declined to dissect ever since.

Now a junior at Stafford High School, Grace is glad that Virginia has joined other states that have enacted laws allowing students to opt out of dissecting fetal pigs, cats, earthworms or other animals.

Starting this academic year, state school divisions are required to inform all students that they can decline to dissect without penalty, and instructors must provide them with alternative learning tools, including computer programs, Internet tutorials and plastic models.

The law has surprised some teachers, including Rebecca Ross, who teaches senior anatomy and physiology and 10th-grade biology at Cave Spring High School in Roanoke County.

“I don’t think there was anybody speaking for biology teachers” when the legislation was being crafted, said Ms. Ross, president-elect of the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT). “They didn’t poll us or ask us our opinion about it.”

But she agrees that students with “moral, philosophical, religious or ethical” objections to dissection should be able to use alternatives, including “virtual labs.”

Such materials should supplement, but not replace, dissection, said Anne Tweed, president of the National Science Teachers Association and a former biology teacher. “They can’t get the same hands-on learning. They don’t have the same outcome.”

The law also troubles some educators because “it wrests control from schools and teachers and gives it to legislators,” said Wayne Carley, NABT’s executive director.

“If the state of Virginia trains its teachers well, then [teachers] should be allowed to decide the educational value of something,” Mr. Carley said.

Virginia is among nine states that have enacted laws or policies that require school districts to provide dissection alternatives. Florida was the first to pass such a law, in 1985, followed by California in 1988. New Jersey also is considering similar legislation. Argentina, India and Israel are among nations that have banned dissection in schools.

The trend is driven in large part by animal-welfare groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the Humane Society of the United States, which encourage students to oppose dissection.

The groups contend that many animals used for dissection often suffer during their capture, handling and killing. They also maintain that it devalues animal life and treats it as expendable.

“We believe that dissection in the classroom is an antiquated method of dissection and promotes the widespread abuse of animals,” said Jacqueline Domac, PETA’s education policy specialist.

“And there are much better forms of curriculum that have been developed in recent years that keep up with the pace of technology and current educational theories,” she said.

The Humane Society estimates that 6 million animals — mostly frogs, fetal pigs and cats — are dissected annually in American high schools. The society distributes anti-dissection videos and loans alternative software to schools.

Before the law took effect, several schools already had allowed students to opt out of dissection, but few students did so, said James C. Firebaugh, director of the state Department of Education’s office of middle instructional services.

Under the department’s new guidelines, all a student needs to opt out is a signed note from parents.

“I wish I could do that when I had to read Shakespeare or Homer or learn all four verses of the ‘Star-Spangled Banner,’” Mr. Carley said. “It never crossed my mind that I could try to get out of it. It was just what you learned.”


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