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Hands off the ferrets

Students in Sharon Nicholson’s fourth-and-fifth-grade class at Oak Harbor Elementary School are worried. At the end of the school year they may lose two friends who are a valued part of the class.

They helped students learn responsibility and were the subject of a science project. Most importantly, the students just love to pet and hold them.

Those friends are Fidget and Gretchen, two ferrets who live in a cage in the class during the school week.

“You have to love them and treat them as your own pet,” said fifth grader Yale Rosen while holding two-year-old Fidget. Yale often arrives at class early to care for the ferrets.

Gretchen, an eight-year-old ferret, has a long scar stretching the length of her belly. That came from surgery to remove a tumor.

Fellow student Jennifer Bowers used the ferrets as a science project. That project also helped her educate her parents about the ferrets and she brought them home over spring break last month to take care of them.

Her father, Dan, was impressed by her daughter’s treatment of the animals and attended a recent school board meeting to talk in support of the ferrets.

“Students started learning responsibilities by taking care of the animals,” Bowers said.

Gretchen and Fidget may have to leave Nicholson’s class because of an animal policy that was adopted by the Oak Harbor School Board in February.

The four-page policy outlines the types of animals allowed in classrooms and the general guidelines for their care.

That policy was considered necessary to address health and safety concerns associated with animals in the classroom.

Ferrets may be allowed to visit classrooms, but they must be handled by the person responsible for them. Children should not be allowed to hold ferrets due to the animal’s propensity to bite when startled, according to the policy adopted by the school district.

Nicholson said that the policy takes away an important aspect by prohibiting her students from handling them. She said students who normally don’t have pets enjoy being around Gretchen and Fidget.

The policy adopted by the school board is based on recommendations made by the Washington State Department of Health and the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

David Peterson, Oak Harbor School District assistant superintendent, said the state recommendations came from a larger publication that covered everything from environmental air quality to hazardous materials.

He said the district strives to comply with health regulations, and officials have had a heightened awareness ever since the old North Whidbey Middle School Building was abandoned in the spring of 2002.

Back then, the school was the temporary home of Olympic View Elementary. It had to be evacuated because excessive dust in the air made some students and faculty ill. The building was demolished last year.

Peterson said the state recommendations are also the guidelines health inspectors use when touring schools and the district is accountable to follow them.

Peter Szalai, president of the Oak Harbor Education Association, said that the policy was approved in cooperation with the union.

The union’s executive committee and representative council reviewed the policy and approved it as long as there was language providing waivers for special situations, Szalai said.

“The rep council saw that this policy was reasonable,” Szalai said.

He said he understood the value of an animal in the classroom and that it can be therapeutic for certain students. However, because of the litigious nature of some people, Szalai said, it was wise for the district to adopt such a policy.

Peterson said the policy doesn’t prohibit animals on school grounds.

“The policy talks about what you have to do to bring an animal to class,” Peterson said.

The policy outlines guidelines for the health and restraint of animals. For example, dogs need a health certificate, must have a collar and a leash and are not allowed to roam unrestrained throughout a school.

Nicholson isn’t the only teacher who uses pets in her class.

Terry Wagner-Rasmussen, along with his wife, Debbie, used ferrets, guinea pigs, hamsters and a bearded dragon in Olympic View Elementary School’s RAVE program for special education students.

“We had quite a menagerie of pets,” Wagner-Rasmussen said.

He said the students would often bond with a particular pet and pets teach some students the responsibility associated with caring for an animal.

However, he removed the caged animals from the class after the school board adopted the policy. He still brings in a couple of poodles, which have the proper certificates.

“It’s unfortunate for kids that can have needs that are answered by animals,” Wagner-Rasmusson said. “The policy didn’t take into consideration the emotional needs of the students.”

The animals did find a home. He let students at the school adopt them.

He said the loss of the animals had a negative effect on his students.

As for Nicholson, the ferrets aren’t the only animals that she uses in her class.

She also brings several chicks and eggs for incubation to her class throughout the year.

However, the new policy prohibits chicks in the classroom because of a high risk of salmonellosis.

Nicholson said she asked for a waiver from the administration, but she hasn’t had a response yet.

In the meantime, she is using the situation as an educational tool for her students.

In the past couple weeks, her students have been learning how to write a persuasive paper and she is using the animal policy as a subject.

She said it provides students with an opportunity to get involved and have a voice.

“I just want kids to learn they have rights and choices,” Nicholson said. “They’re better students for it.”

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