Three days after a Kenwood High School junior left an anatomy class because she refused to dissect a cat, the Baltimore County school system let her return to the honors course yesterday and perform simulated dissections on a computer.
"I'm relieved," Jennifer Watson, 16, of Essex said after learning the school system had purchased a CD-ROM so she can perform virtual dissections during her fifth-period class, rather than taking a standard-level class she didn't want.
Watson said the turnabout will help many other classmates interested in learning physiology without cutting up dead animals. "The majority don't believe in it as well, but they're scared they will fail the class if they stand up," she said.
Douglas J. Neilson, chief communications officer for the school system, said it has had a policy of giving students alternatives to dissection, but Watson's teacher believed dissecting was crucial to learning about anatomy and physiology.
Neilson said the school system will make sure that biology and anatomy teachers systemwide know they must offer a choice. And every student in Kenwood High's anatomy class will be given the option of using the CD-ROM.
"We have the CD ready to go, and we have our plans in place, and we can deliver a good program," said Diane Goldian, principal of Kenwood High. "We will give this option to other students."
Watson and her mother, Maria Watson, learned the news yesterday morning outside the school while carrying posters as they joined 20 demonstrators peacefully picketing dissection in the schools.
Frank Branchini, executive director of the Humane Society of Baltimore County, praised the school system for giving Watson an alternative, but he questioned whether it would adequately publicize the policy underlying the choice.
"I don't think they want students to know that they have a right to refuse," Branchini said on the picket line. "We're going to go get that message out to the students." The Humane Society will note the policy in its newsletter.
An A student with a pet cat, Watson said she believes animals have souls. In ninth-grade biology, she couldn't "emotionally handle" dissecting a frog, she said, and she came home crying upon learning her anatomy elective entailed dissecting a cat.
"Our entire family has pets. We would never hurt pets," said Irene Boykin, Watson's grandmother, who was picketing outside Kenwood High. "We never believed in killing animals. Jennifer won't even kill a bug."
The sides differ over Watson's abandoning her anatomy class Monday. According to Watson, Gary Lay, the teacher, threatened to fail her if she wouldn't dissect a cat or watch someone else do it, so she felt compelled to leave the class.
But Goldian said, "I don't believe that happened. We did not force her out of the class. We gave her another option, which she did not want." That option was an environmental science class that is not part of the honors program. Reached at home Tuesday night, Lay had no comment.
The case drew the attention of the Humane Society of the United States and animal-rights advocates, who spoke at a school board meeting Tuesday night to encourage the use of computer simulations, plasticized animals and other alternatives.
Herb Morrison, a board member of Maryland Animal Rights Advocates Inc., said yesterday that the school system's purchase of a CD-ROM for Watson shows "the value system is changing toward encouraging respect for animals."
Nicole Wallace, a junior at Kenwood High, said she would have taken the anatomy class if she had known about the school system's policy that students who object to dissection could choose the CD-ROM program. "I'm a vegan, and I don't believe in killing animals at all," said Wallace, 16, of Essex. A vegan is a vegetarian who shuns animal products.
But Rose Luberecki, whose daughter is a ninth-grader at Kenwood High, said students should "take a different class" if they object to dissection. "This is not just you go out and kill a cat. There is learning," Luberecki said.
She added: "We did dissections. We did the frogs, the earthworms, several different types of dissections, and no one complained. It was a learning experience."