Girl, 16, forced out of anatomy class

Honors student refused to dissect cat for course at Kenwood High School

September 25, 2002|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,SUN STAFF

A 16-year-old student at Kenwood High School who refused to dissect a cat was forced to abandon her honors anatomy and physiology class Monday, even though her mother offered to buy a computer alternative.

Jennifer Watson, an A student from Essex who cares for a pet cat named Fluffy, resisted dissection as inhumane.

The girl wanted to remain in the class, and her mother proposed buying software for performing simulated dissections on the computer, according to the girl and her mother, Maria Watson. But the teacher threatened to fail the college-bound student if she didn't participate in the dissections.

"She chose to leave because she thought she had no choice," said Maria Watson. "She's been penalized for her ethical beliefs."

The case has raised the ire of the Humane Society and animal-rights advocates, who streamed to a school board meeting in Towson last night to protest the treatment of Watson and argue for a policy giving students alternatives to dissection and vivisection of animals.

"If respected medical schools like Harvard, Yale, Stanford and the University of Maryland don't do dissection, I don't understand why they're doing it at Kenwood High School," said Herb Morrison, a member of the board of Maryland Animal Advocates Inc. He was one of several speakers addressing the issue during the public comment portion of last night's county school board meeting.

The board took no action, however.

`Integral' to course'

Charles A. Herndon, spokesman for the school system, said the State Department of Education and national science groups recommend learning about anatomy and physiology through dissection.

"The teacher felt this was an integral part of the classroom experience and therefore the course could not be completed without participating in the dissection," Herndon said, emphasizing that it was Watson's choice to leave the class.

Watson began taking environmental science Monday, a standard class that she said mostly ninth-graders take.

"I want to get into a really good college one day. I want to have a future for myself and that's why I take challenging classes," said Watson, who has a 4.3 weighted grade point average and aspires to go to Yale University. "But they didn't have any [other] honors classes for me that I didn't take."

Herndon said he did not know the name of the anatomy teacher. Watson identified him as Gary Lay, who was reached at home last night but had no comment.

Anatomy and physiology is an honors elective at Kenwood High. According to Herndon, the course description advertises that students must dissect animals as part of the class, but Watson said she never saw the description.

On the first day of school, the teacher told students they would be dissecting cats.

"My daughter came home from school the first day crying. She said, `Mom, I'm going to hate my fifth-period class,' " the mother recalled.

While the girl has a pet cat of her own, her mother keeps several other cats as pets. "Part of the family," Maria Watson said, adding that she has never been active in animal rights, but does take in stray dogs and injured birds.

Alternative sought

Maria Watson called the school to find an alternative for her daughter. On Friday, Maria Watson said, the school indicated it would try to find another option, and she then offered to buy a CD-ROM package for dissection simulations.

But on Monday, mother and daughter said, the teacher said she would have to dissect animals or watch dissections if she wanted to pass the class. "I don't see why it's necessary to cut animals when you don't want to go into a medical field, but have an interest in what anatomy is about," said the girl, who wants to be a defense lawyer. Her mother added: "What I want for my daughter is not to be psychologically traumatized by dissecting a cat. She should have the right to choose."

Lesley King, director of education and animal welfare for the Humane Society of the United States in Washington, attended the school board meeting last night to advocate for a "school choice policy" similar to ones in Howard and Prince George's counties.

The policies give students the choice to avoid dissecting or vivisecting animals because of their personal beliefs.

"There are amazing alternatives available," King said, including computer simulations of virtual cats, frogs and pigs using three-dimensional glasses.

"It's simply ensuring everybody gets the chance to learn irrespective of their ethical beliefs," King said in a telephone interview before the meeting.

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