When does “safety” prevent learning?

It started off as a unique learning experience for a class of fifth graders at Alpine Elementary School in Longmont, Colo. After receiving a request from the fifth grade teachers for any parents who worked in the medical field to come in and speak to the classes, Ana Williams – a certified nurse midwife and parent of a student in the class – suggested to the teacher that she could discuss placentas and even bring in a donated human placenta to enrich the class’s study on the human body and circulation. According to Williams, the teacher said they had just been learning about blood vessels and thought it would be great.


Image credit: Flickr Creative Commons: Premasagar

Williams discussed placentas with the class, then showed them the donated placenta (which came from a low-risk mother who tested negative for infectious diseases in all routine prenatal tests) from afar, and then, after donning gloves, students were permitted to view and touch the placenta (if they wanted to) in small groups. After removing their gloves, they immediately washed their hands.

One child in the class took exception to the demonstration and her parents, Michael and Christina Valentine, were shocked when they found out what took place in the classroom. The Valentines – who called the lesson “horrible” and “not age appropriate” – were upset that parental consent was not required in advance and contacted the media. CBS4 Denver did an investigative study about the incident and aired this on the 10 pm news. The piece came across very one-sided and left me wondering what exactly about this story was newsworthy.

According to CBS4:

The St. Vrain Valley School District says it was an “oversight” not to let parents of 5th graders at Alpine Elementary School know in advance that a human placenta was being brought to class as a teaching tool.

“Unfortunately that presentation did not quite follow district protocol,” said district spokesperson John Poynton.” They (the parents) had a right to know in advance and for that we regret that they were not told in advance.”

The Valentines are concerned their daughter could have contracted a blood-borne disease and have since taken her for testing which has come back negative. They plan to have her retested in six months.

According to a letter from principal Dede Frothingham sent home to all Alpine families:

Officials with the Boulder County Health Department and Denver Health have assured me that all the appropriate measures were taken to ensure student safety. Further, Dr. Ned Calonge, Chief Medical Officer with the Colorado Department of Health has also assured the District that the chance of any transmission of a blood borne pathogen is unimaginably low, substantially less than a common nosebleed in class or on the school playground.

Williams also commented, “I would like to stress that none of the children had exposure to any blood borne pathogens. Exposure would involve getting stuck with a dirty needle; blood having contact with their mucous membranes; or blood having contact with an open wound. Of course, none of these things happened. We followed standard precautions and hygiene that are used in the hospital. ”

While the Valentines are upset, several other parents thought the placenta demonstration was a great opportunity for the children and some who’s fifth graders were not in that particular class are disappointed that now their children may not have the same learning opportunity.

Melanie Lambert’s daughter is in the class where the placenta demonstration took place and said her daughter thought it was exciting and cool. Lambert doesn’t feel a permission slip was necessary, but perhaps a lab release at the beginning of the year along with a mention in the newsletter would have been sufficient. Lambert said what concerns her is “how this with affect future ‘future show and tells.’ While parental notice is nice I’d hate to see fear and bureaucracy deny kids the opportunity to learn about something real rather than simply reading about it in a book or seeing a picture on a computer. There are always going to be risk with sending your child to school. Kids are often exposed to ‘bodily fluids.’  Blood, vomit, and feces happen at school. You can either talk to them about how to reduce the risk or keep them home. I’d like to see more parents prepare their children to take the risk.”

Clive Oldfield also has a fifth grader at Alpine. His daughter is in a different fifth grade class, but he wishes she would have had the opportunity to have this “great learning experience.” Oldfield said, “What a perfect opportunity to continue their study of circulatory systems by examining an organ that was donated. Life/nutrition/circulation – how fantastic to have that experience first hand.” Oldfield does not feel parental permission was needed and said, “By sending my child to a public school I expect the child to encounter situations and choices made on my behalf by the school and staff that are: moral, ethical, safe, valued, non-threatening, non-corrupting, age-appropriate and educational. All of these criteria were satisfied by embracing the examination of the donated placenta.”

Kris Koval is another parent of a fifth grader who missed out on the demonstration. She said, “I hope that other learning opportunities to engage in hands on, practical learning will continue to be available to my children throughout their educational career.”

Susan Lynch’s daughter missed out on the experience as well, but Lynch thinks it would have been very beneficial to have the hands-on experience. Lynch sees nothing wrong with exposing fifth graders to a placenta and said, “in 4th grade the students dissect ‘owl pellets’ (which is undigested parts of prey that the owl vomits up). The kids find all the bones in the pellets and put together the skeleton(s) that they find. The students enjoy this sort of ‘hands-on learning’ and come away from this unit of inquiry with a good understanding of the life-cycle, animal adaptations, and a basic bodily process (digestion). Using a placenta as a way to illustrate and discuss circulation seems like a fine ‘hands-on’ learning experience for the kids.”

Lynch adds that there was no discussion of sex or reproduction as a part of this demonstration and she doesn’t think there needs to be. “If a parent brought in a lung or a heart for the kids to look at and touch, would we still be having this discussion? I doubt it. It feels like the controversy is because it was a placenta – something that is connected (although tangentially) to sex, reproduction, and (horrifyingly) BIRTH.”

Personally, I feel that while the school district probably should have notified parents in advance, it was a great learning opportunity for the students, one that I’d be happy to have my children participate in when they are older. I think both the midwife and the teacher were acting with the children’s best interests in mind and never had any intention of jeopardizing anyone’s health, nor do I think (based on the information given to me) that anybody’s health was jeopardized. It seems like an overreaction on the part of the Valentines to contact the media resulted in a shock journalism piece put forth by CBS4.

We all want to keep our children safe, but when safety precautions were taken and the majority of the parents and students found the experience to be a good one, is one set of parents’ squeaky wheel really all it takes to get the media to jump on a story? Why didn’t they interview any parents who supported the demonstration? Why didn’t they show the views of the health professionals who thought there was no problem with it? I’m disappointed in the reporting done by CBS4 Denver.

Cross-posted on BlogHer.

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22 thoughts on “When does “safety” prevent learning?

  1. What a super awesome learning experience for those kids. Jeez – I’D even like to see that! I never saw my placenta with my c-section baby, so when I had my VBAC I insisted that the doc let me see the placenta. He even held up the amniotic membrane for me to look at, though you can tell from the pictures that he doesn’t really understand why he’s showing it to me. Since they wouldn’t let me take pictures of the birth, the placenta pics are just about the closest thing have to any photographic evidence that a birth even took place.

    Next time, not only will I be looking at it, I’ll be encapsulating it and ingesting it as well!

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  3. It is common for fire marshals to limit kids from hanging their own school and art work on walls or decorating classes for holidays and even limiting how many centers or materials can be in the classroom due to fire safety. Of course, I’m all for fire safety, but kids hanging snowflakes from the ceiling in their classes to celebrate winter, or hanging letters they wrote to each other on the wall as good writing examples are not quite the terrible fire risks that fire marshals might have us believe. The leaps people take in order to prevent possible lawsuits or news reports is a shame. I’m glad this teacher brought in a midwife to talk about placentas and how awesome they are.

  4. That’s really disappointing. I think that is an amazing opportunity for an elementary class. I hope my kids have opportunities like that some day. I think some parental notice would have been nice so parents who wanted to talk to their kids about what a placenta is and why women have them could do so in a way they would be comfortable with. However, if no notice had been given, I probably wouldn’t have thought much of it.

  5. It’s a great learning experience BUT we’re all about choices. If they’d be teaching a lesson about the dangers of homebirth (say for a family life class or something) I’m sure some of us would be a little upset. I think it’s a wonderful lesson but if there wasn’t a lab release signed at the beginning of the year, then there should have been a permission slip. The experience was given a shady air because of the lack of attention to detail.

  6. Perhaps we should ban gym class and recess, too, because what if someone scrapes a knee? Wait…our physical education programs are already a joke.

  7. I think we can all agree that giving up front notice is a good idea.

    HOWEVER, I fail to see what the big deal is. I remember dissecting animals in school, using razor blades. Yes, I was a few years older, but the danger in that seems higher. I agree that the upset is because it’s a placenta more than anything.

    I would be thrilled to have my own children participate in such an exercise. I think they would be very lucky to have this kind of hands-on experience, for sure.

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  9. The fact that it’s a placenta doesn’t bother me at all, but I think a lab waiver or permission slip should be required before any classroom activities involving dissection or organs. In your post you mentioned dissecting owl pellets, and another commenter mentioned animal dissections. Unless I’m mistaken, activities like that all require parental notification and/or signed permission. If my child was going to see a human lung or heart, I would want to know ahead of time, and I don’t think a placenta is any different.

  10. Hmm. I really don’t see what the big deal is. My oldest is in kindergarten this year and I have been really surprised the kinds of things they do, see, and experience without any parental notification. But that is kindergarten, not 5th grade!

    I can totally see why this might warrant some kind of notification, or permission slip, but I really don’t think the upset would be quite so strong if it wasn’t a placenta. Honestly I think people are really quick to jump on things like this, but for things that really truly make a difference… nothing.

  11. Dear Crunchy Domestic Goddess~
    THANK YOU SO MUCH for sharing this story!!! I live in Colorado as well and I provide Placenta Education and Encapsulation to expecting mothers. I had not heard of this story and it sure stirs up a mixture of emotions in me! Obviously, I believe that this type of learning is amazing and is such a unique opportunity for these kids! As I recall 5th grade is the ‘Growing and Changing’ grade and the placenta can be a perfect tool! Ironically, I was ‘that student’ that brought my sisters placenta to school when I was 16. We had the same awesome opportunity in our biology class as these students did in theirs. Maybe they were a little young. Maybe they should have had a permission slip.
    What is great is that the majority of parents supported this learning! I give praise to the teacher and to the midwife! Thank you for teaching these children about real life!

  12. Oh – and if you don’t mind I would love to share this story and blog post on my blog as well as with other Independent Placenta Service Professionals.

  13. The parents that objected to this science experiment, and then took their daughter to get tested, not once, but twice, makes me so sad for that little girl. Why would any parent want to instill fear in their child? We should be working to inspire creativity, curiosity, and a zest for life and learning in our children. The idea that the natural world is something gross, scary, and inappropriate is the source of many of our problems as a society today.

  14. I teach college science and think this would be an awesome demonstration for any students studying blood vessels. What an opportunity for these young learners! All necessary precautions were taken, and the children were not put at risk. I do think a lab release at the beginning of the year is a good idea, but the teacher and presenter obviously had a handle on the appropriate way to present this learning opportunity for the class.

    Instead of encouraging fascination and curiosity at the human body and science, this situation will probably foster more anxiety and fear. Might as well have told that little girl that “girls don’t do math” because she won’t be inquisitive about the human body – or probably much else – after that.

    So sad.

    I’ll try to refrain from a tirade on the obvious lack of science education on the part of the parents for thinking their daughter could pick something up from a preserved placenta while wearing gloves.

  15. I am all for kids learning by hands-on activities and demonstration. I personally think that this would be an awesome experience for my kids.

    That said, I feel that schools do too much without parental notification. Too many choices are being taken away from parents these days. Before you decide to completely dismiss me, please take a few moments to read some of the literature at http://www.parentalrights.org

  16. Seriously? Send those parents a packet of slips to sign each day. One for each bathroom break, for recess, for each toy on the play area, for lunch, the hallway, for opening the desk, for each class, for each worksheet, on and on. They’ll get over their obsession with signing permission slips soon.

  17. Here’s my thoughts:

    I am the first one to be completely open with my kids about their bodies and reproductive health. My oldest was at my birth and they have both seen many videos of live birth and will be at their siblings birth this summer. We talk about placentas/touch placentas–the whole deal. Completely agree that it’s a grat learning opportunity and after sitting in on high school health classes as part of a panel discussing birth it is obvious that kids need more real life awareness of their bodies and the reproductive process.

    **However** I am not one to trust the public school system. It is a bureaucratic system with checks and balances set up to help protect kids. Can you imagine the horror story that would have come if the placenta had been from someone with a disease and a child had been fooling around and not listening to a teacher and had come into inappropriate contact with it? Sometimes the permission slips are part of a process that brings an extra conscious awareness to the situation.

    I think parents should have definitely been notified as well as been made aware of the safety protocol that would have been followed.

    By all mean, YES, show the kids the placenta, but include parents in part of the learning process.

  18. We need to be careful what we wish for…I can’t ever imagine it being too much trouble for me to read and sign school permission slips. After all, don’t most of us want to be involved in making decisions involving our children’s lives. Isn’t that why we breastfeed, feed organic, and do our best to nourish their little bodies and minds.

    I am totally for providing children with the wonderful experience of examining the placenta, but parents should have the option to sign permission slips or to opt their children out of these experiences for whatever personal/religious reasons they might have. If you give control of your kids over to the school/government you will be reading more things like this…

    School Clinic Sets Up Teen’s Abortion Without Parental Knowledge
    http://www.komonews.com/news/local/88971742.html

    T.J. Cosgrove of the King County Health Department, which administers the school-based programs for the health department, says it’s always best if parents are involved in their children’s health care, but (the parents) don’t always have a say.

  19. This is very nice posting I provide Placenta Education and Encapsulation to expecting mothers. I had not heard of this story and it sure stirs up a mixture of emotions in me! Obviously, I believe that this type of learning is amazing and is such a unique opportunity for these kids! As I recall 5th grade is the ‘Growing and Changing’ grade and the placenta can be a perfect tool! Ironically thanks.
    http://www.fpolitics.com/

  20. Well that’s just awesome to take a placenta to the classroom! It would have never happened in my time at school, though I think of it as an ace initiative in order to boost up the students interests on subjects, since curiosity and experience are a part of human nature, maybe this is also why a k12 online curriculum may help parents take real things for children to experiment directly over them in the house!

  21. So it’s a safety concern? Really? The HS I went to never properly disposed of their hazardous chemicals (like mercury, other heavy metals) when it was free (decades ago when the gov’t. finally “realized” they were dangerous and offered a window of free/reduced fee disposal). Of course, this was never mentioned, and most students never even saw it (let alone the parents). However, had the building burned, tornado, some kid break it, etc. the results would be not be good… Now as a parent I would be less worried about the things the schools mention, and more about things no one thinks of or “forgets” to mention.

    BTW they are still there. Now that I am a chemist I wrote a letter to the school board informing them of the situation. They are “looking into the situation.” AKA…they have figured out it would cost a huge sum of money to dispose of this stuff now because the chemistry teacher 20-30 years ago slacked off.

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