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Board to talk about critters in classrooms - Press Item

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Posted by Wes von Papinešu on April 04, 2000 at 19:33:36:

COLUMBUS DISPATCH (Ohio) 04 April 00 Board to talk about critters in classrooms (Julie R. Bailey)
In Mike Henson's science classroom, students are as comfortable with the boa constrictor that sometimes slithers across the floor as they are with the plants that line the windowsills.
The 9 1/2 -foot snake is part of a menagerie of 11 animals normally kept in cages in Henson's room at Beery Middle School. As a reward for good behavior, the students get to handle the red-tail boa, parakeets, snapping turtle, iguana and other animals for the last 10 minutes of class on Fridays.
"The Beery Mini Zoo is promoting animal husbandry and respect for animals and their eating habits,'' said Henson, who started the zoo about 13 years ago with a $10,000 grant. "This gives students the opportunity to experience things they never have experienced before.''
But if such animals have been in Columbus Public Schools for years and are viewed as helping students learn, why can't Zoe, a certified therapy dog, help out with the nearly 570 students at West Broad Elementary?
That's the question Leslie Cohen-Smith, a physical- education teacher at the school, will ask the Columbus Board of Education tonight.
"Zoe can teach character-education traits like responsibility, respect, citizenship, love and expressing oneself, which is a kind of education students need every day,'' Cohen-Smith said.
Nearly five months have passed since she asked the school board to develop a policy about animals in classrooms, after Zoe, a golden retriever owned by West Broad Principal Jill Spanheimer, was banned.
Spanheimer had taken her dog to school daily for two years and kept it in her office. Even though the district doesn't have a policy on classroom animals, administrators were told to leave their pets at home this school year.
The West Broad staff wrote Superintendent Rosa Smith in September to ask her to exempt Zoe, who is certified by Therapy Dog International, a New Jersey company that evaluates dogs on their ability to obey commands and respond in certain emotional situations.
Smith declined. "My deliberation brought forward a number of issues, including the potential for an allergic reaction by one of your students to Zoe,'' she wrote.
But Cohen-Smith noted that one West Broad classroom has three gerbils, two hamsters and a guinea pig -- all potential allergens.
"I'm not advocating that all animals be moved from the classrooms,'' she said. "All I want is a decision that's equitable and consistent throughout the district.
"I would hope that the benefits all animals can offer our students far outweigh the minute chance of a potential allergic reaction.''
She said she also has been told that snakes and other reptiles commonly carry salmonella, which can cause intestinal problems.
Joel Williams, the primary caretaker of venomous snakes at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, agreed.
"All reptiles have it, and it can easily be brought out, especially if a reptile has a serious or secondary illness like a respiratory illness,'' Williams said. "Turtles are the worst, then lizards. Then snakes are the least carriers of it.''
It's imperative that students wash their hands after handling reptiles, he said.
"To me, it's kind of ridiculous to get rid of a dog when you still have reptiles in the school.''
Henson said he works closely with veterinarians, who check out the animals, and with the Columbus Health Department to ensure the safety of his students.
"In the past 13 or 14 years, I've never had problems. Since the animals get handled so often, I've never had a kid get bit,'' he said.
The school board will review a number of policies this year, including animals in classrooms, President David Dobos said yesterday.
"Personally, from my point of view, I see nothing wrong at all with having animals in the classroom if their purpose is education-related or if they provide a special service that comes with insurance like the dog at West Broad.''
Photo: Tom Dodge / Dispatch
Kati Blackmon, left, an eighth-grader at Beery Middle School on Lockbourne Road in Columbus, watches a 9 1/2 -foot red-tail boa slither by on the floor of Mike Henson's science classroom. The school board will review a policy on animals in the classroom, an issue raised after a principal's dog was banned from school.

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