Ben Hall,  a third grader at Hanover Central's Lincoln Elementary School dissects a 3-D frog in 2018 during a visit from the zBus virtual reality learning experience. Staff file photo by John J. Watkins
Ben Hall,  a third grader at Hanover Central's Lincoln Elementary School dissects a 3-D frog in 2018 during a visit from the zBus virtual reality learning experience. Staff file photo by John J. Watkins
INDIANAPOLIS — A rite of passage for generations of often squeamish Hoosier students could be replaced by technology if state Rep. Ragen Hatcher, D-Gary, gets her way.

Hatcher is sponsor of House Bill 1537 that would require all Indiana public, charter and private schools to develop policies and programs that provide an alternative to animal dissection for any student who requests one.

"It seems inhumane to kill animals only for their study," Hatcher said. "Especially today, there's so much technology that we can dissect on a screen and get the same impact as if you do it in person. This is just the right thing to do."

Under her plan, a student would be allowed to opt out of any portion of a course that includes animal dissection, vivisection, incubation, infliction of harm, capture, surgery, experiments or destruction.

Schools then would be required to provide an alternative education project that delivers the same knowledge to the student, such as viewing a virtual dissection or studying a handheld model of a dissected animal.

The measure also prohibits schools from penalizing the student in any way for choosing not to participate in classroom use of live or dead animals.

Hatcher said she knows that some schools already allow students to opt out of dissection and other animal-related study.

In fact, Hatcher said her mother two decades ago was able to write a note to her teacher in high school so Hatcher would not have to dissect a frog.

"It should be up to every individual student for those schools that don't give the option," Hatcher said. "Some don't, some do and we need to probably standardize that."

The legislation specifies that it particularly applies to frogs, cats, fetal pigs and earthworms, which Hatcher said are the most commonly dissected animals in Indiana schools.

"Hopefully they won't come back and start using gophers or something," she quipped.

Hatcher said she didn't reach out to Region teachers before filing her proposal. Though she said animal rights groups are supporting it.

"I've always been big on animal rights," Hatcher said.

In 2015, Thea Bowman Leadership Academy, a Gary charter school, replaced animal dissection in its courses with Digital Frog software donated by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

The software enables students to dissect virtual frogs and contains animations of the living body, side-by-side comparisons of different species, and modules on how frogs sound and where they live.

"The school's decision to replace crude animal dissection will spare the lives of countless frogs, save the school money and provide students with a more effective and humane learning experience," said Justin Goodman, PETA's director of laboratory investigations at the time.

Dustin Verpooten, a science teacher at Lake Central High School, said virtual dissection can come with both benefits and drawbacks.

Technology can allow a student to learn without fear of ruining a costly specimen, and can expand access to anatomy otherwise inaccessible in a high school biology class, Verpooten said.

"For example, a student might want to be a big-cat zoologist," the teacher said. "It isn't realistic or appropriate for us to dissect a lion, but they could do this virtually."

However, Verpooten added, physical dissection allows students to study and manipulate anatomical features in a more visual way.

"No virtual simulation can quite repeat the hands-on experience that comes with an actual dissection," he said. "This might be comparable to learning how to drive using a simulator. It would teach you many things, but couldn't quite replicate the actual experience of driving."

Hatcher's proposal is awaiting review by the Republican-controlled House Education Committee.

Times staff writer Carley Lanich contributed to this report.

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