After receiving complaints from parents in Arroyo Grande and both local and national atheist organizations, the Lucia Mar Unified School District has launched an investigation into reports of an Arroyo Grande High School science teacher teaching creationism in class.
Until recently, AGHS teacher Brandon Pettenger was listed on the school's website as teaching chemistry and life science. As of the afternoon of April 24, Pettenger is listed as teaching only chemistry, and all life science course information and documentation has been wiped from his teacher page.
New Times contacted Pettenger, AGHS Principal Conan Bowers, and Lucia Mar Superintendent Jim Hogeboom regarding the matter, but has only received responses from Lucia Mar Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Chuck Fiorentino and Director of Secondary Education Hillery Dixon thus far.
Fiorentino said the district is looking into the matter, and "investigating it as we would with any other complaint."
Dixon declined to comment regarding Pettenger because the issue is a "personnel matter." Dixon did note that creationism isn't a part of California's state science standards and added that Lucia Mar has an additional board policy that forbids discussion of "philosophical and religious theories" in science classes.
Dixon also said that creationism "should not be taught in any way" and that none of Lucia Mar's textbooks or general curricula deal with creationist theories.
According to David Leidner—a board member of Atheists United SLO, a local atheist group—one of the group's members has a child in Pettenger's class, and she brought the issue to the group's attention after her son complained to her.
In an April 24 press release, Atheists United claimed that Principal Bowers contacted the father of that student on April 23 and "told him that he was unaware that creationism was being taught at AGHS and that he would put a stop to it." New Times hasn't been able to independently confirm that information.
In an email conversation obtained by New Times, the mother—who did not wish to be identified—writes that her son is a junior at AGHS.
"His science teacher has been presenting creationism as an alternate theory of the origins of life," the mother wrote to the Atheists United board. "My son has been coming home and complaining about his teacher inserting religious concepts in science class for at least a month now."
Based on information from the mother, Atheists United sent an email to Principal Bowers on April 20, listing the group's objections and asking that Pettenger (and the school) cease teaching creationism.
"The federal courts have ruled that creationism and intelligent design are religious views and not scientific theories," the email stated. "As such, they have no place in a science class."
"Teaching creationism as an alternative to evolution is like teaching voodoo as an alternative to medicine," Leidner told New Times. "Our primary concern is to make sure that these students are getting a true science education in a science class. Aside from that, we trust that the school district will take the appropriate actions in this case, whatever those may be."
A pair of national atheist organizations—the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science—co-authored a letter to Superintendent Hogeboom on April 22 based on information from Atheists United.
"If these allegations are founded, Pettenger must be directed to refrain from promoting religion or attacking evolution in the public school," the letter said. "Courts have upheld the dismissal of teachers in cases like this."
Before Pettenger's AGHS teacher page was largely wiped clean, there were links to a public Google Drive document-storing folder entitled "Life Science Sem 2." The folder contained vocabulary lists, textbook chapter reviews, quizzes, and—until recently—two PowerPoint presentations entitled "How did we get here?" and "AntiCreationism."
Those presentations have since been removed from the folder, and the folder was subsequently made private sometime on April 24, but New Times downloaded the presentations before they were removed.
"How did we get here?" is an incomplete seven-slide presentation subtitled "Evolution or Creation: The Debate." It goes on to ask students questions like: "Is God real?" "Is there evidence that God does exist?" and "Did God create the universe? If so, how?"
"AntiCreationism" is an in-depth, 42-slide presentation attributed to Jason Donev and "edited by Brandon Pettenger."
Most of the presentation takes the form of listing what creationists claim, and then countering that with what "mainstream science" claims. The slides cover topics including carbon dating, the speed of light, intelligent design theory, and creationist theory.
Despite covering creationist theory extensively, the penultimate slide in the presentation states that "creationist arguments and theories don't fit the facts" and "should not be taught."
In a since-removed posting on his AGHS teacher page, Pettenger also wrote about an extra credit opportunity consisting of writing "an essay on your opinion in the debate of creation vs. evolution as to the origins of earth and life on earth."
Look for an updated version of this story in the April 30 issue of New Times.