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September 12, 2006 > Students who chose life over death

Students who chose life over death

by Nancy Lyon

Chances are if you're a high school or even a middle-school biology student, you will be asked at some point to dissect a preserved animal specifically killed for that purpose.

Many students have long questioned the morality of harming and killing animals as part of classroom instruction. In the past, a student refusing to take part in dissecting animals had no recourse; a lowered grade or class failure was often the result of acting on the dictates of their conscience.

These smart and caring students think their values should be taken seriously. This is especially true when the anatomy of an animal can be learned through alternative methods and students feel that dissection is an inhumane waste of a life.

What are the reasons that many students, parents, and teachers are turning to alternative methods of teaching rather than dissection? According to the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) there are excellent reasons. It causes great animal suffering and death, it devalues life and desensitizes children to animal suffering, it's bad for the environment, it's a waste of money, and it's not the best way to learn.

Despite the growing enlightenment, the HSUS has estimated that six million cats, dogs, frogs and other animals are killed each year for dissections.

Where do the animals come from? Schools order their animals (usually fish, worms, mice, rats, fetal pigs, rabbits, cats and dogs) from biological supply houses. Each year, this use supports the horror of capturing and killing millions animals for the highly profitable business of science class kits.

Many animals, such as frogs, are taken illegally from their natural habitats. Devastation to the environment results because insect populations, normally kept in check by frogs, multiply exponentially and lead to the increased use of pesticides, which in turn poison and erode the entire ecosystem. Because many of these frog species are endangered, taking them from the wild amounts to poaching, a felony.

Additionally, rabbits, cats and dogs are often stolen from backyards, bought from pet stores or animal shelters (pound seizure is still legal in California), while pigs and sheep are purchased from slaughterhouses.

Current law supports students and their options have changed for the better in California and a growing number of states. In 1988, passage of the Students Bill of Rights gave them the power to pursue humane alternatives to dissection. This law, California Education Code Sections 32255-32255.6 provides as follows:

á     This law applies to all students attending public schools in California, from kindergarten through high school (under 18 year of age).
á     A student has the right to refuse to dissect, harm or kill animals and to do an alternative project, if the teacher believes that an adequate alternative project is possible.
á     At the beginning of the first semester or quarter of the regular school term, the governing board of each school district must notify the parents or guardians of its minor students of the rights or responsibilities of the parents or guardians under this new law.

á     Each teacher teaching a course that utilizes live or dead animals (or animal parts) must inform the students of their right to choose not to participate.
á      If a student has a moral or religious objection to dissecting, harming or killing animals s/he must promptly notify the teacher, preferably at the beginning of the school year. The student must supply a note from his/her parent or guardian, recognizing the student's objection.

á     If the teacher believes that there is an adequate alternative project, then the teacher can work with the student to develop that project. The teacher's decision must not be arbitrary or capricious. The alternative project must require a comparable amount of time and effort from the student. It cannot be used to penalize the student.

á     A student who chooses an alternative educational project must pass all course examinations to receive credit. However, if a test requires harm to or killing of animals, the student may, similarly, seek alternative tests.

á     A student may not be discriminated against because of his/her moral objection to dissecting, harming or killing animals in the classroom.

á      This law does not apply to classes and activities in "agricultural education," which provides instruction in the care, management and evaluation of domestic animals.

How effective are the alternatives? Recent evidence about the efficiency of alternative methods, not to mention their cost-effectiveness, is making it increasingly difficult for school districts to balk at providing students with options to dissection. In fact, HSUS recently compiled a list of 29 studies that compared alternative methods against dissections and other animal uses. In 28 of those studies, researchers found that students using alternatives such as models and computer simulations performed as well or better as students who conducted traditional dissections.

HSUS Vice-President Martin J. Stephens states, "The bottom line is that there are no valid arguments against allowing students to use alternatives. Students who use alternatives, such as CD-ROMs, videos and models, learn the material as well as or better than those students who perform dissection. Furthermore, alternatives are less expensive than the use of animals. Given that schools have to operate under the constraints of a very limited budget, the cost saving is something that should be extremely appealing"

The aim is to ensure that a high-quality education does not inadvertently harm animals. Simple changes, such as the adoption of student choice policies that respect students' ethical and religious beliefs about using animals in biology education, can make a world of difference for both the children being educated and the animals.
Requests for alternative options to dissection should be voiced at the very beginning of the school term, and teachers asked if dissection is part of the class requirements. It's important to be polite, respectful and firm, and be able to explain that a student is requesting an alternate project.

If a teacher or school administrator refuses to work with students and parents, support information can be obtained about the HSUS Humane Education Loan Program (HELP) at 301-258-3042 or email for assistance.

OHS strongly urges students and their families, educators and school administrators to investigate the numerous effective, easily obtained, affordable, and humane alternatives to using animals in classroom dissection.

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