An Arroyo Grande High School teacher violated state teaching standards by requiring students to discuss creationism as a viable alternative to evolution during life science classes, district officials said.
The teacher, Brandon Pettenger, seems to be no longer teaching the life sciences class, although Lucia Mar Unified School District officials declined to confirm that.
Assistant superintendent of human resources Chuck Fiorentino would not comment on what actions were taken against Pettenger, saying it was “a confidential personnel matter.” Prior to the complaints, Pettenger was listed on the high school website as teaching life science and chemistry classes. As of Wednesday, he is only listed as teaching chemistry.
After investigating complaints about Pettenger, Fiorentino said his department found no evidence that Pettenger was letting his personal religious beliefs influence his teachings.
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“I don’t believe that the intent was something religious on the teacher’s part,” Fiorentino said. “Based on my investigation, it was just a way to motivate those 11th-graders into discussion.”
He said this appeared to be the first time any discussion of creationism had been a part of Pettenger’s curriculum.
The issue came to the attention of the district on April 20, when Atheists United San Luis Obispo, nonprofit Freedom From Religion Foundation and the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science sent a letter of complaint to the school and the district, saying Pettenger was teaching creationism in the classroom.
The letter also claims that Pettenger announced he was a "practicing Christian" to the class before the lessons.
"The bottom line is creationism is not science, so it has no place being taught in a science class," AUSLO board member David Leidner said. "Creationism is based on religious beliefs, not on scientific evidence, so if you are teaching creationism, you are teaching religious beliefs. The teacher is entitled to his own religious beliefs, of course, but he is not entitled to be teaching them in a science class."
According to the California Department of Education Science Framework for California Public Schools, the teaching of religious origin stories should be restricted to history, social sciences and language arts curriculum, not science classes:
“Nothing in science or in any other field of knowledge shall be taught dogmatically. Dogma is a system of beliefs that is not subject to scientific test and refutation. Compelling belief is inconsistent with the goal of education; the goal is to encourage understanding. ... Neither the California nor the United States Constitution requires that time be given in the curriculum to religious views in order to accommodate those who object to certain material presented or activities conducted in science classes.”
Leidner said a parent of an 11th-grader in one of Pettenger’s life science classes contacted the group after her son came home saying that Pettenger had devoted three days to watching the Bill Nye-Ken Ham debate titled, “Is Creation A Viable Model of Origins?”
The Nye-Ham debate is from February 2014, and features Ham — founder and chief executive officer of the creationist ministry Answers in Genesis — advocating the legitimacy of creationism as the way the universe was formed. Nye, a television personality most known for the 1990s show “Bill Nye the Science Guy,” supported the side of evolution.
According to Leidner, Pettenger also asked students to summarize a pro-creationist blog as homework and offered extra credit for students who wrote an essay on creation versus evolution.
The district is now using this as an opportunity to remind teachers of state standards for curriculum, Fiorentino said.
“These things happen and you wonder why,” he said. “The truth is, things break down. We put these rules in place, but after a while they get older and tend to slip a little. This was a great opportunity to remind teachers of what is and is not appropriate in the classroom.”
Pettenger directed all requests for comment to Fiorentino.