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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The backyard chicken saga continues locally

As many of you have read, I’ve written about my desire to get backyard chickens on more than a few occasions, like:

There have been quite a few developments since last I wrote on the subject in January and since several of you were interested in following my progress as I and a handful of others pushed for the legalization of backyard hens in our city, I thought an update was in order.

In February 2009, the Longmont city council finally passed an ordinance to allow backyard hens, but only for 50 people who had to register with the city, comply with the set guidelines, pay $30 and obtain a chicken permit. And this would only be for a trial basis. The ordinance would be revisited at the end of 2010 at which time the council would reassess the situation, possibly either allowing more permits to be issued or opening it up citywide, or if it wasn’t working out, shutting down the whole thing all together.

The restriction to 50 permits was upsetting to a lot of us. It seemed like a totally arbitrary number – enough to shut us up, but not enough for a real trial of any kind being that it involved only a tiny fraction of the city’s population. After all of the work we put into it, I was glad they approved something as it was better than nothing.

I had planned on getting one of those 50 permits, but procrastinated a bit because Jody and I weren’t sure if we were going to try to sell our house in the near future and if we were going to, we didn’t really want to have chickens in the backyard during the process (and I didn’t want to snatch up a permit if we weren’t really going to use it). So we hemmed and hawed for over a week and finally decided that we are going to stay put here for a few more years (and make this place more appealing to us and hopefully the next owner too), so I emailed the city planner to make sure permits were still available and he told me they had sold out earlier that week – less than two weeks from when the ordinance went into effect! Ugh.

I later found out that several other people who had been instrumental in getting the ordinance passed in the first place did not get a permit either. :(

The city planner decided to start a waiting list in case anyone who obtained a permit changed their mind and returned it, the city would then reissue it to someone on the waiting list. I am #4 of 22 on the waiting list.

I decided that with all that I’ve had going on lately (health tests, panic/anxiety, putting one of our dogs to sleep, etc.), getting chickens at this time was the least of my worries, and I was OK with waiting another year and a half (provided council approved more permits at that time) before pursuing it. Nonetheless, in the spirit of educating ourselves, Jody, the kids and I attended a chicken ownership class in Lyons in April that was quite informative though we still did not plan on getting chickens any time soon. But then…

One of the women who was very involved in getting the chicken ordinance passed was unable to get a permit due to circumstances beyond her control, and because she already had chickens (now known to be illegally), was at risk of having to get rid of them. She appealed to city council to see if they would consider allowing more permits. While they didn’t want to open up permits to the general public, several council members felt it would be OK to allow residents who already had chickens before the ordinance went into effect and were unable to obtain a permit to get a permit and allow them to be within the law. It was also apparently suggested that the 22 people on the waiting list be allowed to get a permit at this time too!

There has been one vote by city council so far to increase the permit number and they voted in favor of it 5-2. There will be a second vote on June 9, then I will know for sure whether or not I can apply for a chicken permit. Whether or not we decide to get chickens this summer or wait until next spring, I am going to pay my $30 and get my permit – just in case. Especially after going to visit a friend’s chickens tonight with the kiddos, I really want some feathered friends of my own. Brawwwk, brawwwk. :)