When Does "Safety" Prevent Learning?

BlogHer Original Post

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.

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 whose 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.

Contributing editor Amy Gates writes about green living, attachment parenting and more at Crunchy Domestic Goddess.


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