Dover Science Teachers Speak Out

On Thursday afternoon, the testimony resumed with the cross-examination of Jennifer Miller, head of Dover’s high school biology department.

Ms. Miller stated that she and her fellow science teachers have worked to come up with a compromise ever since the school board began to push ID. First, the teachers approved the inclusion of Of Pandas and People as a reference book, as long as the book wasn’t distributed directly to students, and as long as intelligent design was not included in the teaching curriculum. Second, to reassure those who were concerned that the teaching of evolution might conflict with their own views of the origins of man, Ms. Miller and the other science teachers made a clear distinction between the “Origins of Species,” which is what evolution explains, and the “Origins of Life” which is beyond what evolution can address.

Ms. Miller spoke of the many times that she had expressed her concerns to school board members and school faculty about the probable negative effects of including intelligent design in the curriculum. She was concerned for untenured teachers who risked losing their jobs if they resisted including ID. She was concerned about students being ridiculed for supporting evolution. And, at an October 2004 school board meeting, she expressed her worry that Dover would become the “test case” for ID, which would result in an expensive lawsuit for the taxpayers of the district. Dover’s attorney remarked that her prediction was “very prescient.”

After a short recess, Bertha Spahr took the stand. Ms. Spahr is a chemistry teacher, has taught in the Dover School District for her entire career – 41 years! – and has been head of the high school science department for 12 years.

In March 2003, Ms. Spahr found out that some school board members were interested in having creationism taught along with evolution. As she testified, she related a similar chronology of events as noted by Jennifer Miller and Casey Brown: a burned mural, a struggle to obtain textbooks, a school board member’s wife reading of Genesis at a school board meeting and a school board member convinced that separation of church and state is a myth.

At the August 2004 meeting of the school board, Ms. Spahr read a prepared letter, which she read from during her testimony. In the letter, she stated that the teachers do not teach the origins of life; that evolution is part of the state standards for school curriculum; that the draft of a letter from the school board, written without the science department’s input, was unlawful, illegal and unconstitutional; that ID is about the origin of life, so by mentioning it the teachers would be violating school policy; and that Ms. Spahr believed that ID is creationism under another name. She urged the board to delay voting in On Pandas and People. The board, however, voted that night to order the textbook as a reference.

When the books arrived, Ms. Spahr was asked to unpack the texts. Inside she found a catalog for other materials from the company that sold the books. She was asked to read the heading from page 29 of the catalog, which was “creation science.” She noted that there was a reference to Of Pandas and People on that page.

In November 2004, the Dover School Board sent out a press release claiming that the biology curriculum “was developed in coordination with the science department.” Yet, the teachers had merely been asked to review the “scientific accuracy” of a statement to be read to the students. The science teachers released their own statement to the media about the misleading nature of the school board’s statement.

Ms. Spahr reinforced Ms. Miller’s testimony that the teachers went along with Of Pandas and People as a reference book and agreed to teach that there are “gaps and flaws” in evolution in an attempt to “positively compromise” with the school board. These actions were taken only in response to the initiatives of the curriculum committee and did not come from the teachers themselves. They “couldn’t say ‘no'” to the purchase of books, said Ms. Spahr.

Ms. Spahr ended by saying that no one ever explained why or how the school board’s proposed new science curriculum would improve the science education of Dover students.

Submitted by Cheryl Humes, legal intern, ACLU of Pennsylvania; third-year law student, Widener School of Law-Harrisburg