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Legislature gives students a pass on dissection rite

Students squeamish about dissecting frogs and worms in biology class would be allowed to opt out of the well known rite of passage and instead learn about the anatomy of animals on computer software programs under a measure approved by the Massachusetts Legislature last night.

The legislation, prompted by students who object to the notion of putting slimy creatures under the knife, would add Massachusetts to the nine states that already allow alternatives to dissection. However, it faces likely opposition from Governor Mitt Romney, who vetoed a similar legislation earlier this summer in part because he said it ''would send the unintended message that animal research is frowned upon" in Massachusetts, home to an extensive biomedical research industry.

Representative Louis L. Kafka, the sponsor of the legislation that was included in a budget bill that passed last night, said computer programs to provide students with simulated dissections would cost no more than $200 for schools.

''I don't think student should be penalized for not doing the traditional method of dissection when alternatives are available," said Kafka, a Democrat from Sharon. ''The governor suggested in his veto message that this would send the biotech industry a bad message, but in fact we do have a rather large software industry and using that would send them a positive message."

Under the legislation, the Board of Education would be directed to develop guidelines to provide an educational alternative for students who have moral, ethical, or religious reasons for not wanting to perform an animal dissection.

Lawmakers, antidissection groups and teachers have been fighting over the proposal for several years. Many teachers oppose the bill because they say it prevents them from making decisions in the classroom.

Susan Offner, a 10th-grade biology teacher at Lexington High School, said that ''dissection is a critical part of biology education and I'm really dissappointed they did this. I hope the governor vetoes it again."

Offner, a 33-year veteran, called alternatives to dissection ''a joke" adding: ''There is no substitute for seeing the real thing. There isn't a person in the world who isn't deeply curious about what they look like inside.

''Dissection dispells superstition and makes kids more comfortable with themselves and it brings biology to life," she continued. ''If you don't do that, you have massive ignorance and ignorance is very, very dangerous."

The legislation is backed by the Boston-based Ethical Science and Education Coalition, the educational affiliate of the New England Anti-Vivisection Society, which says on its website that it ''works to ensure that students' rights to a quality education are not compromised by academic threat, punishment or failure because of their ethical choice not to harm animals."

Members of the biomedical research community also oppose the bill, according to State House News Service.

''This is part of a large antianimal usage agenda," said Alan Dittrich, president of the Massachusetts Society of Medical Research, told the News Service last month. He said passing this legislation could discourage companies from coming to Massachusetts because it would create an ''aura" that suggests the state is unfriendly to animal research.

Romney argues that the measure is unnecessary. In his veto message, Romney said the legislation was unnecessary because ''the state curriculum framework on science and technology addresses the issue by encouraging schools to allow alternatives to dissection."

The dissection measure was included in a supplemental budget bill unveiled yesterday afternoon by the House Committee on Ways and Means and passed by a handful of lawmakers meeting in informal session last night. The $724 million budget would also send $21.6 million to charter schools, $16.8 million to fund the pay raises for court-appointed defense lawyers, and allocate another $75 million in unrestricted aide to cities and towns. In addition $336 million will be deposited in the state's rainy day fund.

The money available to charter schools in the supplemental budget is expected to reimburse school districts that have to send some of their budget to pay for students who choose charter schools.

''We're trying to move the charter schools formula closer to what school systems are trying to pay for possible kids within their school system," said Representative Alice Wolf, a Democrat from Cambridge and a member of the Ways and Means and Education committees.

Of the $21.6 million, $11.1 million will go to reimbursing school districts for the money they spend on charter schools. The balance would fund capital projects regarding charter schools, she said.

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