Southern Oregon school district restricts pets

Medford administrators cite fears about student health, safety

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MEDFORD, Ore. — Remember those Rockwellian days when the family pet followed the kids to school and everyone laughed?

Well, no more.

The Medford School District is kicking critters off campus.

As the new school year starts, it's scram to the loyal dog that once trailed behind its teacher-owner and shoo to the cat that basked in the school office longer than anyone can remember.

The plug isn't being pulled on fish tanks, but other live science projects probably can't stay overnight.

The zoological restrictions, which were tightened in December and are now being enforced, are intended to protect kids and employees from animal-activated allergic reactions, respiratory diseases, other health and safety issues, and the possibility of a bite, scratch or peck.

"We're still making campuses animal friendly, it's just not their home," says Julie Evans, the district's director of elementary education.

Although she sympathizes with owners of banished pets, she says, "We need campuses to be safe."

District educators acknowledge that creatures can be effective teaching aids.

They can provide close-up lessons about animal habitat, handling and feeding for life-science classes. Their growth, water intake and food consumption can be measured and charted in math class. And their actions may inspire artwork and original stories.

Research also shows that caring for classroom pets improves attendance, connects kids to nature and teaches that human actions have an impact on other living beings.

Emotionally, children confide in pets when they're feeling low or left out.

But in Medford, animals have to hightail it when the dismissal bell rings, if they're allowed on campus at all.

A Lionhead rabbit named Yoshi spends the day in a cage in the second-grade classroom at the new VIBES Public Charter School at the Kids Unlimited facility. At night, it goes home with teacher Melissa Olmstead Ballard.

The fish, however, stay put in a big, glass tank.

Service exception

In some schools, birds, reptiles and insects can linger during the week -- unless they're wild, exotic or poisonous.

"Reading dogs," drug-sniffing or search-and-rescue canines are welcome on campus, but not so fast with everyday dogs and cats.

If a kid brings a leashed or caged animal for show and tell, the "guest" pet must be taken home immediately afterward.

To comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, Medford School Board Policies ING and ING-AR do make provisions for service animals.

Service dogs can come to school and even ride the bus.

But they and their owners have to jump through a few hoops first.

For one, the dog has to wear a harness and a vest that identifies it as a service animal.

It has to have all its shots, a license and special training.

Owners then have to show they have adequate liability insurance and promise to handle any mess or damage to district property.

If students aren't able to "independently provide all care and management" for their campus companion, a handler can do so, if he or she passes a background check.

While on campus, service dogs should not be petted, fed, groomed, cared for or distracted from their job, states the policy.

If the animal is somehow disruptive -- imagine a dog barking or doing something cute -- it has to be reported to the building supervisor. Then the principal will have to convene a meeting to discuss the situation.

If the owner wants to appeal a four-legged expulsion, it has to be in writing and the superintendent would have to overrule the decision.

All of this policy and paperwork has Lori Chakarun, a retired office manager at Lone Pine Elementary, shaking her head and getting a little heated.

Sixteen years ago, a tortoiseshell cat named Sunflower followed kids to the school and ended up making the campus her permanent home.

Staff chipped in for food and vet visits and kept the litter box clean.

Students who earned good grades and exhibited excellent behavior were rewarded with Sunflower time. If they were upset, she would crawl into their lap.

No more.

In June, Sunflower was ousted.

Chakarun took the cat to her Jacksonville home. But everything's not purrfect.

"People need to know who will not be returning to school this fall," says Chakarun.

The green-eyed feline is not the only mascot given the heave-ho at Lone Pine, she says.

Bella, an emotional support dog for the special ed class, was evicted during spring break.