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Litigating Student Choice

The issue of student choice—allowing students to opt out of animal dissection in the classroom—is one that is primarily in the realm of education. However, there are legal components, both in the passage of new laws and litigation challenging the failure to offer alternatives when they are requested. Litigation on this issue is uncommon, but the case of Jenifer Graham and her battle with her local high school serves as a shining example of how a single case and a compelling advocate can have an impact on the lives of thousands of student lives since.

The Graham Case

One of the most influential court decisions regarding the issue of dissection is Graham v. Board of Trustees of the Victor Valley Union High School District. A tenth grader named Jenifer Graham refused to dissect, citing her deeply held moral beliefs and her mother’s religious beliefs in the universal brotherhood of life. The school principal refused to accept this protest, as it was not based on an organized religion that he recognized.

A Board of Trustees policy required dissection with no exceptions; otherwise, the Board would lower Ms. Graham’s grade and put a notation in her record. The State Education Code required the science class at issue, though not the dissection element of the class.

Ms. Graham and her mother filed claims for free exercise and due process, based on damage to Ms. Graham’s reputation, standing and property interest in her education. An additional discrimination charge was brought for failure to give consideration to Ms. Graham’s individual religious beliefs, simply because they were not part of an organized religion.

The federal court dismissed the case in 1988 with the provision that the school provide Ms. Graham with a frog that had died of “natural causes” so she could fulfill the dissection requirement. No such frog was forthcoming. Ms. Graham appealed and the court of appeals ordered counsel to submit settlement statements, and the case was settled in December 1990. The school removed all negative notations from Ms. Graham’s record and graded her independent tutorial on the anatomy unit with an A. The school also agreed to pay Ms. Graham’s legal fees.

While no legal precedent was set in this case because the case was settled, the impact of the lawsuit could be felt long after it was over.

  • During the course of this suit, in 1988, the State of California passed a law mandating that students who object to dissection be given an alternative.
  • In 1989, CBS produced an after school special entitled “Frog Girl: The Jenifer Graham Story,” which received a Genesis Award and continues to be viewed nationwide.
  • The Animal Legal Defense Fund launched a Dissection Hotline at the request of Pat Graham, Jenifer’s mother, in order to provide a legal resource for students like Jenifer.
  • NAVS took over the Dissection Hotline in 1989 in order to provide advice and resources to students and teachers, with Pat Graham as the program’s director.

While the Jenifer Graham case is not the only challenge that has found its way into court, it remains the most thorough treatment of the possibilities of litigation challenging mandatory classroom dissection. The outcome surpassed its intention, giving relief to this student and ultimately to all students in the state of California by prompting the passage of a student choice law.

Since that time, 13 additional states have passed laws that guarantee students the right to refuse to dissect in a classroom without penalty, as well as numerous states that have adopted policies that directly or indirectly permit students to opt out of dissection. Only Florida’s law predates California. NAVS has actively lobbied for the passage of each of these bills and continues to promote the passage of student choice bills—and policies—around the country.