Don't touch the ferrets

Earlier in the year, the Oak Harbor School Board approved a policy outlining how animals are to be handled in the classroom. One requirement of the policy states that ferrets can be allowed in the classroom, but students shouldn’t touch or handle them.

That didn’t sit too well with Sharon Nicholson, teacher at Oak Harbor Elementary School, or her students. She has two ferrets, Gretchen and Fidget, that are a popular part of her class.

She spent the past several weeks working to change that policy and appealed to the school board Monday evening for a waiver to allow her students to handle the ferrets.

“Students have a choice whether they want to interact with the ferret. There is only one problem — too many students want to hold them,” said fifth-grade student Yale Rosen during the Monday evening Oak Harbor School Board meeting. “Please reconsider your policy and let us have our friends.”

Nicholson asked administrators for a waiver, but it was denied. The school board rejected the waiver, with two members for and two against.

Nicholson felt that students, teachers and parents should make a decision about animals in the classroom.

“Many decision made by the board should be made by parents and teachers,” Nicholson said.

While it is not a state law, the school board adopted the policy based on recommendations made by the Washington State Department of Health and the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

That policy outlines which animals are appropriate for schools and how they are to be handled in classrooms. It states students shouldn’t hold ferrets because of a chance the critters will bite when startled.

“We are very cautious about animals biting students,” said Rick Schulte, school district superintendent.

Nicholson said that her ferrets do not bite. Their incisors do touch the person holding them when they lick or sniff the holder.

Several nurses working for the school district spoke at the meeting in support of the policy.

“I do feel there needs to be some control in the classroom to minimize bites,” said Barbara Wihlborg.

Fellow nurse Az Franciose said that the policy needs to be altered to address allergic reactions students may have to the animals.

Those sentiments were echoed by another nurse, Marilyn Dessert.

“Animals can’t take priority over a child’s health,” Dessert said.

The school board was sympathetic to Nicholson’s situation. One board member, Kathy Jones, said she visited the classroom.

“The students are very staunch advocates for retaining the ferrets,” Jones said. “The students are very committed to the animals.”

Board member Kathy Chalfant asked if the district could grant a waiver until the end of the year to make it easier on the students in Nicholson’s class.

Bruce Worley, executive director of operations for the school district, answered that a temporary waiver would expose the school district to legal liability.

Eventually the board voted on whether to grant the waiver until the end of the year, with the measure failing on a 2-2 tie. Chalfant and Jones voted for the motion and Vicki Harring and Gary Wallin voted against it. Board member Dave McCool was absent.

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