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Colleges Dissect Student Rights


JENNIFER ROUTH is suing the State University of New York for infringing on her religious and moral rights. The college sophomore objects to dissecting animals, which she says is ethically repulsive to her. Ms. Routh reportedly does not eat meat or dairy products and refuses to wear clothes made of leather.

The university has a simple solution: Jennifer Routh can avoid courses where animal dissection is required. Such programs are not mandated for graduation. Or, as an alternative, she can take these courses but observe the work of her laboratory partner instead of performing dissection herself.

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Routh, however, is planning a career in medicine, and laboratory experimentation with animals is required by the state university to complete a major in this area. She also refuses on ethical grounds to participate in a lab, even as an observer, where animal dissection takes place. The university seems ready to equivocate. It has already given her a passing grade for a lab she says she attended but did not really participate in.

But however this dispute is resolved, the controversy points up a continuing tug-of-war between university regulations and requirements and student dissenters who refuse to abide by them for personal, moral, or any other reasons.

Until now, the dissection issue has not been litigated at the university level, although several high school students across the United States have been successful in the courts in their efforts to avoid participation in the cutting up of animals.

On other matters relating to student rights, the law has wavered. For instance:

Students and their parents continue to win individual cases where excessive physical punishment has been used in the schools. Advocates of a complete ban on spanking, however, have fallen short of their goals in the courts.

In one of the most celebrated rights cases of recent years, the US Supreme Court narrowly decided that school officials may search without a warrant the lockers and persons of students believed to be hiding drugs and other contraband. While this ruling appeared to be a setback to student rights, it also affirmed for the first time that students do enjoy broad constitutional protections.

The recent commemoration of the events at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, where two decades ago student protesters were killed by the bullets of National Guardsmen, brought to light reforms in university policies that now allow political dissent under certain circumstances. There continue to be incidents, however, where the use of offensive language and the abuse of public property or symbols lead to suspension or expulsion.

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Despite increased freedom of the student press on both high school and college campuses, the courts still allow faculty censoring of certain stories and strict review of publication policies. This is in accord with a high-court ruling that student newspapers and magazines are part of the scholastic process and therefore enjoy fewer First Amendment free-speech guarantees than the press in general.

The courts continue to mandate ``mainstreaming'' special-need students by the public schools in order to ensure them an education on a par with the general student population.

Jennifer Routh's protest against the dissecting of laboratory animals comes at a time when society's opposition to vivisection and mistreatment of animals appears to be gaining public support. Many medical and veterinary schools are reviewing their policies about animal experimentation. And some are substituting textbook instruction for lab work.

The quest for moral behavior in regard to the physical environment, as evidenced in recent Earth Day events, should naturally extend to all living things.

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