Monday, February 12, 2007

More and More Teens and Students Object to Dissection: One Story of One Courageous and Caring Teen Who Refuses to Take Part in Dissection

I’d like to congratulate Tonia De Los Santos for being a rare teen and for standing up for what you KNOW is wrong. Courage is hard to come by these days. But, you’ll see, you’ll feel better and others WILL follow. It takes one to speak for the many. Keep it up.

For more on alternatives to dissection and how to state your rights not to dissect, see the following two sites:

Teen objects to dissection
Educators say lesson is optional but educational

By Julie Muhlstein
Herald Columnist

The day I visited her Marysville home, Tonia De Los Santos was wearing cuffed jeans, a blue sweatshirt, a rainbow hair clip, pink nail polish, and a rat on her shoulder.

She's crazy about animals. And she's crazy about Johnny Depp, star of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies. Tonia, 17, named her rat "Captain Jack Sparrow."

"Captain," as she dubs the rodent for short, isn't a typical house pet. Tonia doesn't have a typical household. In addition to the rat, her family has a bearded dragon lizard, a gecko, a rabbit, several hamsters, three dogs, three cats and a tank full of goldfish.

Tonia may not be the typical kid, but plenty of teens may relate to her complaint.

"My daughter came home from school the other day really upset. She said, 'Mom, I have to dissect a rat,'†" said Erica Sweeten, Tonia's mother. "She said she can't do it."

Tonia is enrolled in biology at Marysville-Pilchuck High School. Her teacher is Brian Roberts, a substitute for a science teacher recently deployed to serve in Iraq.

Sweeten said Tonia told her that when she complained, the teacher countered that his other class will dissect cats.

While Tonia had the impression that if she didn't do the rat dissection she wouldn't get a passing grade, Roberts and Ken Tallquist, an assistant principal at Marysville-Pilchuck, said there is always the option of students doing an alternative assignment.

"I just started the quarter. Kids are still finding out what we're doing," said Roberts. The teacher said cats are indeed used for dissection, but only in anatomy-physiology, an advanced elective course.

"If a parent was concerned, that's fine," said Tallquist. On Friday, the assistant principal spoke with Tonia's teacher. "No one has contacted the teacher about opting out," Tallquist said.

Talking with other science teachers at the school, Tallquist said "they rarely have an opt-out" when the assignment is dissection.

Although Tonia was mistaken in thinking she'd be forced to cut up a dead rat that reminded her of Captain Jack, her fear got me wondering what types of critters are being dissected at other schools.

Perhaps a better question is why are critters cut up in high school at all?

"When you and I were in school, we were dissecting frogs," said Gail Miller, assistant superintendent in the Marysville School District. "A big part of biology is the study of anatomy. Rat and cat structures are more like humans."

"It's a vivid experience. The instrumental purpose is for kids to understand more deeply and remember longer," Miller added.

There could be several ways of opting out, she said. "One could be that they just don't want to touch it. They could stay and observe. The second level would be to opt out of the whole lab," Miller said. In three years with the district, she said this is the first time she's heard of a dissection complaint.

In the Monroe School District, spokeswoman Rosemary O'Neil said high school students have dissected earthworms, squid and perch. "It depends on what classification they're studying in biology. But there's always an alternative assignment," O'Neil said.

"There are things you will never learn from a picture," said O'Neil, who acknowledged that students' first reaction to the assignment is often "Eeewww, I don't want to do that."

Everett School District science specialist Bob Sotak said when he was a teacher, there were always other options. In Everett's biology classes, he said students take apart chicken wings to compare the bone structure with that of human hands.

Other animals may be used in anatomy and physiology classes, Sotak said.

Tallquist said the rats are acquired from the Carolina Biological Supply Company. The company's Web site shows pigs and frogs are also available. Tallquist said cats also come from a science supply company, and are available "with fur and without."

To Sweeten, the very idea that anyone would teach a teenager to skin and dissect a cat is appalling.

"It's not acceptable," Sweeten said. "We teach kids not to hurt animals. The first time I hear on the news that some cat has gotten skinned, well who taught them how to do it?"

Tallquist called dissection "a great teaching tool."

"You learn a tremendous amount. I remember when I was a kid doing this, and thinking 'Wow, I did not know that.' The same things are going on in the animal as with you," Tallquist said.

With Captain Jack Sparrow on her shoulder, Tonia doesn't want to know. "He's a baby. I feed him people food," the girl said of her rat.

Cut up a friend?

"I can see she would have a problem with that," Miller said.

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