by Whit Gibbons

November 22, 2009

Andrew Grosse sent me a copy of an email that has far-reaching implications for ecological research, the environment, and U.S. educational programs. Andrew, who has a master's degree in wildlife ecology from the University of Georgia, works at the Savannah River Ecology Lab (SREL) as a research professional and participates in the SREL Outreach Program. Collectively, staff members give more than 500 presentations and set up hundreds of live animal exhibits at regional schools annually. In a typical year they reach more than 40,000 K-12 students.

The email came from a teacher at a middle school where Andrew was to set up an exhibit at a career fair and give a talk on reptiles of the area. It read, "Our principal is not convinced she would like to have animals brought to the school [that] day. She's feeling like the children would possibly catch something from the reptiles."

The teacher explained that she, as well as the guidance counselor, "would LOVE for the children to have this exposure." She asked Andrew to call the principal. He did, and then sent an email to the teacher: "I explained that the reptiles would not be a danger to the children in any way and that reptiles have no air-borne pathogens. However, she has multiple concerns about the health of both the children and adults and seems very reluctant to have animals in the classrooms for this event. She indicated that we could come but could only bring pictures of the animals."

Reptiles are but one example of a larger issue that I consider of grave concern. The sky-is-falling paranoia about what children are exposed to at school does not apply just to plants and animals. Some schools have concerns about visiting speakers addressing such topics as history, archaeology, and geology. Suppose the speaker says something politically incorrect or unintentionally threatens someone's religious beliefs, or cultural values, or whatever else people can find to be offended about.

The principal's attitude is indicative of a disturbing trend seen throughout the country. Paranoia--about problems that either do not exist or might happen only under the rarest of circumstances--is adversely affecting the education of our children. The circular irony in this particular case is that such attitudes perpetuate ignorance about a group of animals by precluding educational talks about them. Students, teachers, and principals are unlikely to learn certain facts about reptiles without hands-on, or at least eyes-on, experience.

In the principal's defense, she may be exercising extreme caution in response to over-reactive litigation or to oversensitive parents who do not appreciate wildlife and are themselves unfamiliar with reptiles. These days it seems like written parental permission is required before students can be exposed to anything new or different. No surprise then that a principal might recoil from allowing children to be exposed to animals as unfamiliar as reptiles.

It has been said there are no dull subjects, only dull teachers. And I have written before about how an enthusiastic educator can make even something as mundane as mushrooms fascinating. Because of unusually rainy weather in many parts of the country this year, mushrooms abound, in myriad colors--yellow, blue, red, orange, green, even purple. Should a school decree that no mushroom can be brought into a classroom because some mushrooms can kill you if you eat them? To me, the benefits of creating a sense of appreciation about the mystery and wonder of the world we live in far outweigh the almost infinitesimally small risk that a child will later go outdoors and eat a poisonous mushroom. One might even argue that being able to distinguish between harmful and harmless mushrooms could be beneficial.

Ultimately, Andrew had to decline the teacher's invitation to make a presentation to her students. "Unfortunately, we will not be able to attend the career fair on Friday. Our outreach program policy is to educate students, parents, and teachers through the use of live animals, whether by handling them or just observing them in their cages. Our inability to bring live animals to the school prevents us from performing this service to the best of our ability."

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