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New law says it's OK to cut dissection lab
But with computers, many students haven't had to.
By Kristen A. Graham
Inquirer Staff Writer

Long a rite of passage in most high school biology classes, dissecting animals is now officially optional in New Jersey.

Gov. Codey last week signed a bill that says public school students "may refuse to dissect, vivisect, incubate, capture or otherwise harm or destroy animals" as part of instruction. Alternative education programs must be provided, and pupils may not be discriminated against if they refuse to dissect.

New Jersey joined 10 other states, including Pennsylvania, in allowing students who find dissection objectionable to refuse without penalty.

The measure does not faze Kelly Rosas, who in 10 years of teaching biology, anatomy and physiology at Delsea Regional High School in Franklinville has presided over the dissection of hundreds of bullfrogs and fetal pigs.

During that decade, just two students at the Gloucester County school have refused to dissect. Forcing them to do something they found objectionable or failing them was never an option, Rosas said.

"One girl was Muslim and said she couldn't touch the pig. The other girl's father had just passed away. They didn't know why, and they were doing an autopsy," Rosas said. "I wrote library passes and told them to do research for a paper."

As more districts adopt sophisticated technology in the classroom - virtual-dissection computer programs, for instance - the debate about dissection has grown louder. Some schools have moved away from live dissection entirely.

Like many other area schools, Maple Shade High School has used computers to supplement real dissection, not to replace it.

New Jersey's law will hardly change things, said Rich Keegan, vice principal and supervisor of the science department.

"We've prepared to discuss alternatives, just in case, not because of the new law but because students have objected to dissecting occasionally. It's for religious reasons, or they say they'd be repulsed by the experience," he said.

At Maple Shade and at Haddon Heights High School, students strongly opposed to dissecting never had to participate, principal David Sandowich said.

With the new law, "we'll approach it more formally, but it's never been a major issue," he said, adding that students who objected came along only every few years.

That has been the experience of Rosas, the Delsea teacher, who yesterday led her second-period anatomy and physiology class in virtually dissecting a frog, a warmup to picking up scalpels and doing the real thing this month.

"The tools are very touchy. Make sure you double-click," Rosas said, pausing to direct the enthusiastic gut-peering of Jeff Hird and Vinnie Pannone.

At the next computer, Danielle Yurchak was a little queasy. "Dissecting is gross," she said, moving her mouse and frowning at the screen. "Eew! I cut open the brain!"

She has had practice in dissecting from 10th-grade biology, but said that even though she probably wouldn't use the freedom the new law provides, she was glad it's there.

"I don't like to look at my own blood," Yurchak said, "but I do want to see the spinal cord."

Laura Dixon is a junior at Washington Township High School and a lifelong animal lover. For her, the law means new freedom.

So even though nursing might be in her future, she had resigned herself to not scheduling anatomy and physiology in 12th grade. That class, she said, requires the dissection of a cat.

"It'll really affect my senior year that this bill has passed," Dixon said. "If I know I definitely have an alternative, I'll definitely take the class."

Janine Motta, a staffer at the New Jersey Animal Rights Alliance, said her organization had worked with a number of students who did not want to dissect and teachers who did not want their students dissecting.

"There were times when the school was amenable to giving them a replacement," Motta said, "but there were times when they just had to do it, period. Without this bill, the burden was on the student to come forward. Now the burden is on the school."

Pennsylvania was a leader in the dissection alternative movement, passing its law in 1992.

Pete Vreeland, head of the science department at Upper Merion Area High School, said students know they have the right not to dissect. Still, he orders plenty of frogs and worms.

But the advent of Web sites like www.froguts.com have made teaching much richer, he said.

"There's even an online operation you can do at one site," Vreeland said enthusiastically. "You can opt to see either a diagram or a picture from the surgery. You can play with the tendons and the kneecaps."

Still, he said, there is no substitute for the real thing.

"If a student really wants to be a candidate for a science program, to go into medicine,

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