A special education teacher brings her trained therapy dog to class and the affection and comfort shared between the students and the dog reduces the students’ stress and agitation.

On a school field trip, the nature director at a park stands in a stream and turns over a rock igniting the curiosity of a group of nine-year-olds as the water bugs, crayfish and salamanders scurry for cover.

A couple of bears are spotted wandering around a North Jersey high school, making it necessary to keep the students inside.

Interaction — whether intentional or accidental — with the animals that share our world can impact a school in different ways. As illustrated by the examples above, animals can be a source of social and emotional support, they can be an engaging educational tool, and their presence in the school environment can create a hazard to the safety and well-being of the school community. Topics such as how an animal is used and its purpose for the educational program, the responsible care of an animal in a school, and health issues such as pet allergies, fears and phobias can all be important considerations for board policy.

Live Animals in the Classroom The American Humane Association in collaboration with the Pet Care Trust conducted a study Pets in the Classroom that involved surveying 1,200 North American teachers regarding the educational value of pets in the classroom. A 2015 reportsummarized phase one of the survey data and concluded that teachers observed the following uses and benefits of classroom pets:

  • To teach children responsibility and leadership via animal care.
  • To teach children compassion, empathy and respect for all living things, including animals, humans, nature, and the world we share.
  • To enhance and enrich a variety of traditional academic lessons, from science to language arts.
  • To provide an avenue for relaxation when children are stressed or when their behavior is unstable and/or challenging to manage (for both typically developing children and those with special needs).
  • To help students feel comfortable and engaged in the classroom and with their peers, so that the school environment is more conducive to quality learning, growth, and social connections.
  • To expose students to new experiences and opportunities (particularly for those who do not have pets of their own), which may translate to a decrease in unfounded fears and biases among children.

Despite the generally positive attitudes of teachers in this survey by American Humane Association, the National Humane Society cautions that “there are better ways to teach students about animals and responsibility than keeping a classroom pet.” The group notes that, “Busy, noisy classrooms can be stressful, and small animals can be very adept at hiding symptoms of illness or injury (a lifesaving attribute when trying to avoid predators in the wild, but less than ideal in a setting where children are present). Even accidental rough handling can cause an otherwise social animal to become timid and defensive. Learn more.

While a policy on live animals in the classroom (NJSBA file code 6163.3) is not required by law, policy in this area helps provide guidelines that protect the health and safety of the students and staff as well as the animal.

In developing a policy the board should set forth an approval process for allowing a classroom pet and assign the level of approval: the board, the chief school administrator or the principal. Approval of a classroom pet should include the teacher’s rationale for wanting the pet and should be limited to animals that may legally be maintained by individuals. Concerning New Jersey wildlife, it is prohibited by law for a person to possess any nongame species or exotic species of any mammal, bird, reptile or amphibian without a permit (N.J.A.C. 7:25-4.2). This means that garter snakes, tadpoles, frogs, salamanders and turtles collected from their natural environments are off limits in the classroom.

Policy and procedures should address the appropriate handling of the animal. If it is appropriate for the animal to be handled, students should be instructed on the correct way to handle the animal and supervised to minimize the potential of the animal or the child getting harmed. People and especially children can get sick from handling animals or touching the animal’s habitat by coming into contact with germs like salmonella and E. coli. Children handling the animal and/or tasked with feeding the animal or cleaning the habitat should wash their hands immediately after contact with the animal, food or habitat (Learn more from the CDC.). As is usually the case with policy, the worst case scenario should be considered and protocols established for the immediate medical attention of any person who becomes ill or is injured from a scratch or bite.

Policy should require that any teacher approved to have a classroom pet must assume responsibility for the humane and proper treatment of the animal. This includes educating and supervising the students to ensure appropriate interaction and that the rules for handwashing are correctly observed. In addition the teacher must be responsible for ensuring that the animal is clean, fed, is protected from harsh environmental factors such as direct sunlight, heat or cold and is appropriately cared for when school is closed.

Policy may address the approval of domesticated animals and therapy animals to visit the classroom for educational purposes which include activities related to interest, handling experience and enrichment. The owners of such animals may be required to provide written documentation from a veterinarian that the animal is healthy and vaccinated or trained, as applicable. In addition rules may be established requiring the animal to be contained, caged or on a leash while on school property. A 2015 School Leader article addressed the topic of therapy animals in schools. Finally, the board should consider any potential liability that may arise from permitting animals in school by consulting with the board attorney and insurance provider.

Unauthorized Animals on School PropertyOccasionally a stray dog wanders onto school property or an individual exercises a dog on school grounds after hours or on weekends. Some of our northern New Jersey and rural school districts have bigger concerns such as wild bears sauntering around or residents riding horses on school property when school is closed. While stray dogs and bears may be scary and immediately bring safety concerns to mind, other less-threatening animals can damage property and leave droppings creating unhygienic conditions for the students and staff. Unauthorized animals on school property may be addressed under policy 1330, Use of School Facilities.

Stray, sick or potentially dangerous animals should be reported to the local animal control authority or the police. It is within the authority of the board to prohibit pet owners from bringing their animals on school property without authorization both during and outside of operational hours. Such prohibitions should be posted clearly on school property in all areas of potential use. If there is a problem and the board suspects that the policy is being violated, surveillance equipment may be used to help identify violators. Also the local police may be consulted and arrangements considered for the patrol of school property after hours.

Service Animals The New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination and education statutes N.J.S.A. 18A:46-13.2 and -13.3 and the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), provide that people with disabilities may bring their service animals to all “public accommodations.” This includes schools.

Critical policy 5145.4 Equal Educational Opportunity states:

Individuals with disabilities shall be permitted to be accompanied by their service animals in all areas of the school facilities where members of the community, participants in services, programs or activities, or invitees, as relevant, are allowed to go.

A school official may inquire as to whether the service animal is required due to a disability and what task or work the service animal has been trained to perform, unless the student’s disability and the work or task that the service animal will perform are readily apparent (N.J.S.A. 18A:46-13.2). The board may require that a veterinarian certify that the animal is vaccinated and healthy and licensed if required by the municipality. The school may not require proof that the service animal is trained or set training or certification requirements. Since service animals span a wide array of functions and uses to individuals, there is no centralized certification program for service animals.

The board is under no obligation to care for the animal, so if the individual requiring the service animal is a young child, the board may stipulate that the parent/guardian support the animal’s care and be present for ensuring that the animal is taken out to go the bathroom or given other care that may be required. In establishing an accommodation plan that includes a service animal it is advisable to notify the parents/guardians of all the children who will be affected by the animal’s presence. Ample notice gives the school administration time to plan accommodations for other students who may be allergic or fearful of the animal.

Dissection and Animal Experimentation The National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) in a position statement, Responsible Use of Live Animals and Dissection in the Science Classroom, “…supports each teacher’s decision to use animal dissection activities that help students:

  • Develop observation and comparison skills;
  • Discover the shared and unique structures and processes of specific organisms; and
  • Develop a greater appreciation for the complexity of life.”

The NSTA recognizes that science educators are professionals and in the best position to determine when to use, or not use dissection activities. Their position advocates for establishing specific and clear goals and being “sensitive to students’ views regarding dissection, and to be aware of students’ beliefs and their right to make an informed decision about their participation.”

The organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) strongly opposes dissection and the Humane Society of the United States opposes the practice of animal dissection in pre-college classrooms. The opposition cites statistics of animals being cut open and discarded. PETA asserts that practicing dissection desensitizes children to respecting life and can foster a callousness toward animals and nature. They argue that modern technology makes it unnecessary because virtual dissection is available.

New Jersey education law N.J.S.A. 18A:35-4.25 requires that the district must offer an alternative to dissection or vivisection of animals or animal parts, and must notify pupils and their parents or guardians of their right to refuse to participate in dissection. This requirement is covered in model policy 6161.1, Guidelines for the Evaluation and Selection of Instructional Materials (NJSBA Critical Policy Reference Manual).

New Jersey law does not authorize or prohibit the use of dissection in school and some educators in New Jersey are dissecting and using living organisms in science classrooms. School districts, as part of the decision-making process to use dissection and living organism, should consider what students need to understand and be able to do, as defined in the New Jersey Student Learning Standards for Science, and weigh the safety and environmental issues. Any policy related to the curriculum should be developed with the input of the appropriately trained professional staff members who will be affected by the policy.

A child loving a pet seems on the surface like a simple joy but there is a lot to consider when that pet comes to school. Mahatma Gandhi said: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” A school is a very important subset of a nation making considerations related to the treatment of animals in school significant board decisions.

While permitting service animals as an accommodation for people with disabilities is required by law, rules authorizing other animals to be present on school grounds or used for the educational program are entirely a matter of board policy. There is a great diversity in personal feelings regarding animals ranging from intense love to anxiety and fear, making it hard to determine priorities. The issue of dissection and the use of live organisms in the classroom is a heated ethical debate. In addition, there are many considerations regarding the health, safety and welfare of the students, staff and the animals. In the absence of law, it is the role of school leaders to weigh the options carefully and make responsible policy decisions.

NJSBA critical policies and legal references 5145.4, Equal Educational Opportunity, and 6161.1, Guidelines for the Evaluation and Selection of Instructional Materials, may be downloaded. For sample policies and regulations covering live animals in the classroom, therapy animals, service animals and other related topics or for help developing policy and regulation language to suit your needs do not hesitate to contact NJSBA Policy Services.