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No Herps in Class - Press Item

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Posted by Wes von Papinešu on June 28, 1999 at 20:01:15:

MONTREAL GAZETTE (Quebec) 12 June 99 The class menagerie: Second-grade teacher under pressure to expel more than 80 animals
South Kingstown, R.I.: School and state officials want teacher Julianne Whitcomb to remove more than 80 animals from her second-grade class at South Road Elementary School.
Are they worried about allergies and other health problems - or are they just being skunks?
"I think it's unreasonable,'' said Whitcomb, who has asked the teachers' union to investigate. For nearly 20 years, the veteran teacher has used animals - from an African skink to 50 hissing Madagascar cockroaches - to teach science, math and reading to grade- schoolers.
On one recent school day, Whitcomb's 21 students measured dozens of animals, including Piglet, a bashful guinea pig. Another day, 8-year-old Emiko Bossian counted eggs laid by a reddish-brown Cecropia moth perched atop her pencil. "It's just laying eggs all over the place,'' she squealed. Once they become caterpillars, said Emiko, "they turn fat and chubby.''
But school and health officials say the animals are a health hazard, especially for students with allergies.
"The Health Department is very concerned about allergies and asthma in children, and in indoor air quality,'' said Marie Stoeckel, chief of the Health Department's office of occupational and radiological health.
Last month, an anonymous parent complained to the Health Department about Whitcomb's class. The room, the caller said, is jammed with cages, pens and terrariums housing rabbits, snakes, lizards, turtles and birds.
In response, Stoeckel cautioned South Road School principal Donna Fitts. "Known allergens include animal dander, cockroach feces and dried animal excretions,'' Stoeckel said.
If the animals stay, she added, the school must install a special ventilation system to protect the children: "Maintaining good indoor air quality is the responsibility of the school.''
Fitts asked Whitcomb to move the animals by June 30. Any that remain "will be removed and not returned to the owner,'' Fitts said in a memo to Whitcomb.
Teachers can bring in animals for special - and temporary - projects, Fitts said. And fish tanks can house more than one fish. But the classroom zoo must go.
Whitcomb isn't happy about the new rule. She said the school district doesn't have a policy that restricts the number of animals in a class. And Stoeckel said there are no air-quality regulations tied to school animals.
Worse, the 50-year-old teacher doesn't have a home for the more than 80 animals living in her cinder-block classroom.
Many of them were purchased as teaching tools, said Whitcomb, who already shares her home with a dog, two goldfish and a lizard.
"I started out small, but then it began to build,'' said Whitcomb, who added warm-blooded animals to her collection 3 1/2 years ago.
Now, her collection includes an African skink named Serafina, two rabbits in white-wire cages, a canary named Danny and a Mexican salamander, among others.
Whitcomb said she notified parents about her animals at the beginning of the school year and no one responded. None of her students have complained about allergies, she said. "Obviously, if we had a really allergic child, he would be placed in another classroom.''
She also bristles at charges that the children spend too much time with the animals. "It's not every day,'' she said.
And when she uses the animals, they are integrated into various lessons. She even writes stories about them for the children to read. And handling the animals, she says, teaches the students "how to be gentle and caring.''
Fitts isn't an animal-hater. As a former teacher in Louisiana and California, "I always had some kind of animal in class,'' she said. "In the sixth grade, we bred rats.''
But one animal, or a breeding pair, is enough, she says. "I do understand that animals can be interesting for the children, as well as provide educational opportunities. However, I strongly believe we are putting our children at risk by having pets in our classrooms.''
For the rest of the month, at least, Whitcomb's students will continue to count moth eggs and measure caterpillars. "We learn about how they live, what they like and how to treat them and stuff,'' said 8-year-old Katherine Smith, a freckled blonde in dungaree shorts.

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