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Perham-Dent School District looks to ban teacher's pets

Murphy the school dog performs the old tennis ball on the nose trick with Perham students a couple years ago in this file photo. Murphy's "last day of school" was last spring. A new animal policy is expected to be passed by the Perham School Board this month. (Louis Hoglund/EOT Focus)

PERHAM -- Critters and kids are the focus of a new policy that is expected to be approved by the Perham-Dent School Board this month.

For kids in the Perham elementary school, it means that the beloved "school dog" Murphy will no longer be free to roam the premises. Allergies and related health issues are the motives behind the school board policy.

"We all love Murphy," said elementary school Principal Kari Yates at the October Perham school board meeting. "Delivering the news to the students was one of the hardest things I've done as a principal...Murphy was a phenomenal addition to the school."

The policy essentially bans animals as "classroom pets." The policy concludes "the most effective method to controlling exposure to animal allergens in schools is to keep schools free of feathered or furred animals."

Murphy is a three year old golden retriever mix and has served as official school therapy dog for the past three and a half years. He was only six weeks old when he first came to school with fourth grade teacher Marcia McEachran. Murphy completed his AKC Canine Good Citizen training at a year and a half, and passed his official Delta Therapy Dog Training this past May.

"This isn't a feel good issue," said School Board Chairman Jim Rieber, "it is a health issue... A dog is not essential to the educational process."

Allergies and asthma cases are on the increase, said Superintendent Tamara Uselman in an interview. She said there are a number of staff and students who have allergies to pets.

"We've had environmental complaints," said Uselman. "The question becomes: 'Is it OK to have a dog on campus when we know people are allergic to it?'"

The situation also raises the question of the small animal class, which is offered through vocational-agriculture program at the school. From a policy standpoint, the difference is that the small animals have a defined educational purpose. But further, the small animals are not kept in the mainstream of the high school building-and they do not roam freely like Murphy did in the elementary school, noted Uselman.

"Most schools just aren't allowing classroom pets any more. We're about the last in the area that we know of," said Uselman.

Though it has never been a concern with Murphy, there are liability and insurance issues relating to animals in school. There have been biting incidents elsewhere. "Even a the best dog can have a bad day," said Uselman.

Teacher McEachran, who brought Murphy to school almost every day, wrote a letter in anticipation of the school policy.

"Although I am disappointed and saddened that Murphy can no longer attend school," wrote McEachran. "I know that the children at Heart of the Lakes benefited from having him there and will miss his wagging tail and the happy demeanor that he greeted them all with each day...Murphy says thanks for all the hugs, kisses, treats, fun times on the playground, and class visits."

It probably is no consolation to Murphy and all the kids that enjoyed him, but there are also another class of critters that are strictly forbidden in the school's proposed policy: No poisonous animals are allowed.

Key points of proposed Perham-Dent animal policy

-Maintaining an animal in a classroom merely as a classroom pet is forbidden.

-Presence of an animal shall be temporary. Animals shall not be allowed into a classroom where a child with a known allergy is educated.

-All requests to have animals in the classroom or on school property must be submitted to the principal or their designee in writing.

-No animals will be allowed free range in the facility. No animal shall roam the hallways off restraint. No animal shall leave the classroom unless the owner / handler removes the animal.

-Fur-bearing and warm-blooded animals may trigger or exacerbate asthma episodes.

-Proteins, which act as allergens in the dander, urine, or saliva of these warm-blooded animals may sensitize individuals and can cause allergic reactions or trigger asthma episodes. If an animal is present in the school, there is a possibility of direct, daily exposure to the animal's dander and bodily fluids.

-Even after extensive cleaning, pet allergen levels may stay in the indoor environment for several months after the animal is removed.

-The most effective method to controlling exposure to animal allergens in schools is to keep schools free of feathered or furred animals.

-No animals shall be housed at school unless the animal is central to the curriculum of th course and the teacher knows the appropriate care, feeding, and handling of the animals.

-Each teacher is responsible for the proper control of animals brought to the classroom for instructional purposes, including the effective protection of students. This includes keeping the animals on restraint or in appropriate cages or containers for the protection of the animal and individuals.

-Teachers may bring and maintain goldfish or tropical fish in suitable bowls or tanks, but turtles, birds, snakes or other animals which might present a health hazard shall not be allowed without the approval of the principal, and then only for class observation and study for a limited period of time.

-Science teachers may have animals in appropriate facilities in, or adjacent to, laboratories for the purpose of class study and experimentation, provided that the utmost care is taken to prevent accident and/or suffering to the animals.

-Animals are not to be transported on school buses, except for service dogs.