In an age of frequent lawsuits, something as seemingly simple as keeping a class pet has been cause for much debate, and a lesson in civil engagement for students in Redmond School District.

When Superintendent Mike McIntosh heard of another Oregon school district being sued recently for an incident related to an animal, it prompted him to recall his own district policy on animals.

For years, practice hasn’t matched the district’s policy, first adopted in May 2002, and most recently re-adopted by the school board in June. Board policy allows only for service animals and animals on a temporary basis related to curriculum to be allowed in district facilities, but surveying school administrators earlier this month, McIntosh found there were nearly 30 animals in schools. The great majority of those were essentially class pets.

McIntosh has been toiling to resolve the issue for a month. At a school board meeting Tuesday, McIntosh said he’s personally seen the positive impact animals can have on kids, but insurance doesn’t cover class pets — and what they might do to a student — and he has students and teachers to protect.

A pet could bite a child. A dog could scare a student by snarling. An aquarium sounds harmless — until it tips over in class.

“I’ve been violating the policy for a long time on your behalf, and I apologize for that,” McIntosh said. “And it’s never come back to bite me.”

School board members and district staff let out a chuckle at the remark.

“You could change the policy, but if you change the policy you write yourself out of the insurance policy,” McIntosh said.

Like most public school districts in Oregon, Redmond School District’s insurance is PACE, Property and Casualty Coverage for Education, created by the Oregon School Boards Association and Special Districts Association of Oregon in 2006.

The insurance doesn’t cover class pets. Via board policy, teachers are considered the owners of those animals, something McIntosh said most teachers didn’t realize until a recent memo he sent.

“It’s not a question of value; it’s not a question of service to kids; it’s just can we maintain that level of risk,” McIntosh asked.

McIntosh said looking so closely at what-ifs is a product of the 21st century, adding “it is a very litigious society we live in.”

“I understand and engage and accept the belief from firsthand experience around the power of animals for kids in trouble,” McIntosh said. “It is an amazing thing to see. If it’s an amazing thing for kids in trouble, it’s an amazing thing for kids who aren’t in trouble.”

On Oct. 5, McIntosh sent an email asking teachers to find alternative homes for unapproved animals, whether that be with teachers, students or community members, by the time school restarts after Thanksgiving break Nov. 27. Tuesday evening, the board asked that to be pushed until after winter break. Many teachers have already pulled the animals out of classrooms, McIntosh said.

The animals in his district run the gamut. “Dogs are common, hedgehogs are common, guinea pigs are common, there are lizards of all dimensions, snakes,” McIntosh said.

But it was one particular lizard, a veiled chameleon named Yoda, that especially tugged at some heart strings with its long tongue. Taj Smith, a special education teacher at Obsidian Middle School, shares the reptile with the whole school, not just his own students. In an email to The Bulletin, Smith called the chameleon the middle school’s unofficial mascot.

“Students love learning about chameleons, holding it, feeding it, and just observing this unique creature,” Smith said. “As a teacher, I like how I can use Yoda as a ‘live’ educational tool and the countless times I used Yoda to de-escalate a potential situation by offering a student to hold or care for this reptile.”

A few students with a particularly special bond to Yoda tried to figure out a way to keep the animal around. And although they didn’t succeed — the policy will remain unchanged — they learned a valuable lesson in how to speak up and fight for what they believe in, that even they didn’t take for granted.

One of those students, Ashlyn Dennis, 13, and a seventh-grader at Obsidian, said Yoda helped her come out of her shell in middle school.

“I’m happy and frustrated,” Ashlyn said, talking about arguing her case to McIntosh. “I was really bummed because I lost, but I realized you can lose things in your life, like losing (Yoda) … you’ll be sad, you’ll be emotional, but after a while you’ll be like, ‘I’ve got to get over this.’”

McIntosh met up with a few students, including Ashlyn and another seventh-grader, Alexandra Higgins, 12, about their desire to keep Yoda at the school. The girls had created a petition that got about 100 student signatures. Alexandra said she loved that Smith would bring out Yoda if someone was having a bad day to help cheer the person up.

In his email to The Bulletin, Smith made it clear he was impressed with how the students went through the proper channels to try to make a change. Before talking with McIntosh, they spoke with their principal, Tami Nakamura.

“I was proud of them,” ­Nakamura said, adding the experience was a real-life lesson in civic engagement. She went over the pros and cons of petitions with them, how to communicate what they were feeling, how to focus their argument to the specific result they wanted — even how they would dress for their meeting with the superintendent.

“I told them this is how we make change in the world,” Nakamura said. “Not in an angry, upset way but with facts and understanding.”

McIntosh and board members tried to make their understanding clear too, that animals can provide a noticeable benefit. School board member Shawn Hartfield struggled with making the call to ban all animals when some (a fish, for example) seem especially harmless compared to others. Her son’s class has a beloved turtle he’ll miss when it has to leave the classroom.

But while no incident was the catalyst in Redmond School District to better adhere to the policy, it’s not without precedent in Central Oregon. In 2010, the family of a child allegedly bitten by a teacher’s dog in her Ensworth Elementary School classroom sued Bend-La Pine Schools for more than $164,000. The bite to the child’s face required 33 stitches.

At that time, the school district’s pet policy stated pets were allowed in schools for educational purposes. The district considered changing the policy to require written requests to school principals to bring in animals. That’s currently Bend-La Pine Schools’ policy: In the board regulation, only service animals or “animal visitors” are allowed.

Bend-La Pine’s Communications Director Julianne Repman said the director of elementary schools would characterize the schools as following its policy “pretty closely.” Repman said the school district planned to send out a reminder to teachers and ask them to remove animals that don’t meet the policy.

In Jefferson County School District, only service animals serving people with a disability and animals approved by the superintendent as part of curriculum are allowed. A spokeswoman for that district said to the superintendent’s knowledge, the policy isn’t being violated.

— Reporter: 541-383-0325, kfisicaro@bendbulletin.com

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