Features

Unscientific methods

Back to School 2004 | Does freedom of speech end at the classroom door?

Issue: "Education: Sick schools," Sept. 18, 2004

When Roger DeHart left Burlington-Edwards High School in Washington State in 2001, he thought he was leaving controversy behind.

He was wrong.

The biology teacher, then 47, had been embroiled in a reverse Scopes Monkey Trial. Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan had in 1925 slugged it out in court over whether teacher John Scopes could teach Darwinian evolution, but Mr. DeHart and the ACLU had from 1997 to 2001 slugged it out over whether Mr. DeHart could teach anything except evolution. Specifically, could he teach Intelligent Design?

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For 10 years at Burlington, Mr. DeHart, a teacher who earned first-rate classroom performance reviews, supplemented his science curriculum with materials that posited an origins alternative-that evidence in the biological universe pointed to the hand of a designer. Using selections from Intelligent Design-friendly texts such as Of Pandas and People, Mr. DeHart presented evolution and Intelligent Design (ID) theory side by side.

"I never mentioned God," Mr. DeHart said. "I walked right down the middle of the road. By the end of the unit, I tried to make sure students couldn't tell which side I was on."

But in 1997, one student complained to his parents that Mr. DeHart was teaching creationism. That ignited a four-year, all-community ground war that included the formation of dueling citizen committees, town-hall meetings, and blistering editorials in local papers. It gathered national attention, including anti-DeHart letters from the National Center for Science Education, legal threats, and national headlines. All coalesced into a slow melt of Mr. DeHart's supplemental curriculum. Finally, citing "changes in enrollment," Burlington officials reassigned him to teach earth science-where the intellectual insurgent could keep his rebel theories to himself. His reassignment made the local paper.

At about that time, Ken Talquist, a former Burlington English teacher who had taken a job as a vice principal in nearby Marysville, called Mr. DeHart to say that his school was looking for a biology teacher. "They know all about you," Mr. Talquist said of Marysville-Pilchuk High School (MPHS) officials. "They're not worried. They'd still like to have you down here."

"I thought, 'This is great!'" Mr. DeHart recalled for WORLD last month. He wasn't happy with his reassignment, and was also growing weary of his role as local lightning rod. So he drove down to Marysville for an interview and landed the job. Before accepting, though, he asked school officials for permission to critique Darwinism. As long as he stuck with the MPHS curriculum, they said, his challenging scientific theory was good science.

New teaching contract in hand, Mr. DeHart tendered his resignation at Burlington. That event made the papers, too, as did his new job at Marysville. Soon Mr. DeHart got a call from a Marysville reporter. Did you know, she asked, that Marysville is hesitant to hire you? And did you know you're going to be teaching earth science, not biology? On the same day, Mr. DeHart received a voice mail from the district welcoming him to Marysville as an earth science teacher.

He immediately began calling Marysville district officials, who, he said, did not return his calls. After a week, he secured a meeting with district human resources director Shirley Hodgson. "When she came in, the first thing she said was, 'Why are you such a troublemaker?'" remembers Mr. DeHart. "I said, 'I'm a troublemaker? What's going on here? When the district hired me, you knew exactly my stance.'"

Ms. Hodgson said that the district was not obligated to hire him, Mr. DeHart recalls: In spite of a contract signed by both Mr. DeHart and the school district, the school board had yet to approve his employment.

Ms. Hodgson told WORLD through a district representative that she did not call Mr. DeHart a troublemaker. At the prompting of concerned Marysville parents, "the district independently investigated his difficulties in Burlington," Ms. Hodgson said. The district then informed Mr. DeHart that he would only be allowed to teach approved biology curriculum. Also, said Ms. Hodgson, "there was no adversarial relationship between Mr. DeHart and the district."

Mr. DeHart agrees that there was no adversarial relationship-after he was hired. But before that, more headlines appeared: "Marysville on edge over hiring of new science teacher." After his meeting with Ms. Hodgson, Mr. DeHart's attorney drafted a letter to the Marysville school board. It explained firmly that the district faced legal jeopardy if it refused to hire him, or reassigned him to earth science-it being illegal for employers to discriminate based solely on ideology. The district relented and offered him the biology job.

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