Dispatches from the Creation Wars

More Lessons from Dover

The ruling in Kitzmiller v Dover Area School District was a pretty cut-and-dried text, as must judicial rulings are. So it was a bit surprising when, near the end of the opinion, Judge Jones bluntly referred to the “breathtaking inanity” of the Dover school board’s adoption of the ID policy. But as bracing as such a bold statement was to see in a judicial ruling, the trial record shows that it was entirely justified. The behavior of the ID advocates on the school board ranged from negligent to ignorant to outright lying on the witness stand.

I’ve already documented the lies of board members Bill Buckingham and Alan Bonsell, whose dishonesty regarding who had donated the money to buy the 60 copies of Of Pandas and People. I’ve also documented the ignorance displayed by Buckingham and Bonsell in regard to what they knew about intelligent design; while aggressively pushing a policy to put ID into Dover science classrooms, their testimony clearly showed that they didn’t understand even the most basic things about the idea they wanted in (and they knew even less about evolutionary biology).

Today I’d like to focus on board member Heather Geesey. Geesey is the only one of the pro-ID board members who remains on the school board today; all the rest were voted out in November 2005, but Geesey’s seat was not up for reelection so she remains on the board. But as her testimony makes clear, she knew next to nothing about intelligent design, yet she voted to put it in to science classrooms in Dover. Here’s part of her testimony:

Q Now, you said you voted for the October 18 curriculum change because you liked it.

A Yes.

Q You supported the change.

A Yes.

Q It — because it gave a balanced view of evolution.

A Yes, I mean . . .

Q It presented an alternative theory?

A Yes.

Q And the policy talks about gaps and problems with evolution?

A Yes.

Q Yes. You don’t know what those gaps and problems refer to, do you?

A No.

Q But it’s good to teach about those gaps and problems?

A That — yes, that’s our mission statement, yes.

Q But you have no idea what they are?

A It’s not my job, no.

Q Is it fair to say that you didn’t know much about intelligent design in October of 2004?

A Yes.

Q And you didn’t know much about the book Of Pandas and People either, did you?

A Correct.

Q So you had never participated in any discussions of the book?

A No.

Q And you made no effort independently to find out about the book?

A No.

Q And the administration had made copies of the book available to board members.

A Yes.

Q But you never read the book.

A No.

Q And no one ever explained to you what intelligent design was about.

A No.

Q And you never got any instructional materials or tapes about intelligent design.

A No.

Q And you never viewed any or read any books about intelligent design.

A No.

Q And you didn’t study it independently.

A No.

Q You didn’t go on the Internet and look it up.

A No.

Q So you didn’t really think too much about intelligent design.

A No.

Q You just knew it was something else that the kids were going to learn?

A Yes.

Warms the heart, doesn’t it? School board members voting things in that they made no effort to learn anything about. This isn’t just the blind leading the blind, it’s the willfully ignorant leading the kids we are educating for the purpose of overcoming ignorance. Worse yet, she admitted that she just accepted Buckingham’s opinion, while ignoring the informed opinions of all of the Dover science teachers:

Q But you chose to listen to Mr. Buckingham and Mr. Bonsell?

A Correct.

Q Now, I know you said you don’t have any background in science, correct?

A Correct.

Q And do you know whether Mr. Buckingham has a background in science?

A No, I do not.

Q Do you know that in fact he doesn’t have a background in science?

A I don’t know. He’s law enforcement, so I would assume he had to take something along the way.

Q Did he ever tell you he knew something about biology?

A No.

Q How about Mr. Bonsell, do you know what his background is?

A No.

Q Do you know what he does for a living?

A He’s a business owner, I believe.

Q He’s not a scientist, to your knowledge?

A Not to my knowledge, no.

Q He’s not a science teacher?

A No.

Q Now, there are people employed by the school district who do know a little something about science, correct?

A Correct.

Q And that would be the teachers.

A Yes.

Q And you know Ms. Bertha Spahr?

A Yes.

Q And she’s been with the school district a long time.

A Yes.

Q And she’s head of the science department.

A Yes.

Q And you know Ms. Miller.

A Yes.

Q And you know Mr. Eshbach.

A Yes.

Q And you know Mr. Lanker?

A I don’t — I wouldn’t be able to place him, but I know the name, I know he’s a teacher.

Q And he’s a science teacher?

A Yes.

Q And you knew that the science teachers were all opposed to introducing intelligent design?

A Correct.

This is absolute negligence. If you have control over a school’s science curriculum, you need to know something about science. And you need to put in the effort to educate yourself on the issues you vote about. To vote to put a concept into the curriculum that you don’t understand and refuse to take the time to understand is unprofessional, willfully ignorant and dangerous to the entire purpose for which you are on a school board.

Of course, this is the same woman who made this absolutely bizarre statement during a school board meeting after the policy was passed:

“We are not doing to be sued. It’s not going to be a problem. I have confidence in the district’s lawyers.”

Except that the district’s lawyers had urged the board not to adopt the policy and told them that they were going to be sued if they did so. The pro-ID school board members were willfully ignorant to the point of being delusional.

Comments

  1. #1 Lynn Fancher
    January 29, 2007

    Like many of you, I read the transcripts from this trial eagerly, as soon as they were available. Heather Geesey’s testimony stood out, even then, above all the rest. Bonsell and Buckingham, of course, showed themselves to be ignorant and dishonest, but Geesey demonstrated such a total intellectual vacuity–it was as if there literally was nothing between her ears but empty space.

    My jaw remained dropped througout the reading of her testimony.

    And I really love the “It’s not my job” bit!

    Lynn

  2. #2 J-Dog
    January 29, 2007

    Ed – Isn’t there any criminal negligence here?

  3. #3 Sastra
    January 29, 2007

    Ms. Geesey clearly possesses “the peace which passeth all understanding.” And everyone who saw her give her testimony in Dover no doubt marveled in wonder, impressed by her simple faith.

    It’s all in how you frame it.

  4. #4 SteveF
    January 29, 2007

    That has to be one of the most inadvertently hilarious things I have read in a long time.

  5. #5 mark
    January 29, 2007

    Codswallop.
    All Heather Geesey had to know, I’ll wager her thinking went, was that Intelligent Design was cheerleading for Jesus. Bringing ID into biology class would be a step toward bringing compulsory prayer back into school. I’m rather sure she had been informed (prior to the Board’s adoption of the anti-evolution statement) that ID was unscientific claptrap.

  6. #6 Ray S
    January 29, 2007

    The real breathtaking inanity is that school board members like these are not unusual.

  7. #7 DuWayne
    January 29, 2007

    Q Do you know that in fact he doesn’t have a background in science?

    A I don’t know. He’s law enforcement, so I would assume he had to take something along the way.

    Because of course we all know that cops have to make a thorough study of biology, to make it through the police academy. . .

  8. #8 SteveF
    January 29, 2007

    “Because of course we all know that cops have to make a thorough study of biology, to make it through the police academy. . .”

    Yes, Commandant Lassard really used to push them on evolutionary biology.

  9. #9 kehrsam
    January 29, 2007

    J-Dog: I fail to see a crime involved. Yes, I’m sure the Board members take an oath, but that really doesn/t have the power of law. The usual remedy for politicians who make stupid policy is to make them ex-politicians, which is what happened in Dover.

  10. #10 scott pilutik
    January 29, 2007

    Q Do you know that in fact he doesn’t have a background in science?

    A I don’t know. He’s law enforcement, so I would assume he had to take something along the way.

    Police Officer: Are you aware of how high you were driving?

    Perp: Not really officer, no — I thought maybe 2 feet.

    Police Officer: You were 10 feet high.

    Perp: Oh man, I’m sorry, my altimeter must be busted …

    Police Officer: Are you aware of the laws of gravity in Dover County?

    Perp: It’ll never happen again officer.

  11. #11 Les lane
    January 29, 2007

    Towns that elect morons to the school board deserve what they get.

  12. #12 Poly
    January 29, 2007

    OK – the point has been made.

    Now let me ask all of you oh-so-smart folks the following questions: Which of you has applied to run in your community’s next local school board elections? Which of you have run in the past for your local board?

    Because if the answer is you’ve done neither and don’t intend to change your behavior, you are part of the problem.

  13. #13 doctorgoo
    January 29, 2007

    Poly makes a very valid point.

    It seems like the crusade against ‘evilution’ is enough to inspire people to run for the board. But the defenders of science just tend to assume that it would never happen in their community.

    That is, of course, until it’s already too late, and the board is filled with creationists.

  14. #14 Ed Brayton
    January 29, 2007

    Poly does indeed have a point, and that’s one reason why I keep making this argument, to encourage rational, well educated people to get involved. Running for school board election isn’t difficult, it doesn’t require a lot of money and it can help prevent situations like this. I have no intention of running for a local school board; I have no children and would have a snowball’s chance in hell of being elected. But I work above the local level toward the same goals.

  15. #15 gengar
    January 29, 2007

    Did she testify before or after Bonsell and Buckingham? It’s possible that she just decided that appearing gormless was better than being caught committing perjury.

  16. #16 mark
    January 29, 2007

    The usual remedy for politicians who make stupid policy is to make them ex-politicians, which is what happened in Dover.

    But as we can see by the national situation, such is not always the case–Bush was reelected.

  17. #17 Fastlane
    January 29, 2007

    Poly does make a good point. I have run for the precinct committeeperson, and I’m active in a couple of citizen political groups. I encourage all of you to do the same.

    If nothing else, go to city hall before every general election and throw your name in the ring for district or precinct committee person. It costs nothing in every state in which I’ve lived, and you may get to influence your local officials in at least some small way (for instance, here in KS, the committee in Johnson county appointed the notorious Phil Kline as the DA after he was voted out of office as the AG).

    And Ms. Geesey is positively genius in comparison to some of the local boards here in Kansas.

    Cheers.

  18. #18 dogmeatIB
    January 29, 2007

    Poly,

    Being a teacher in the district bars me from running for/serving on the board.

    To answer the question regarding criminal negligence. Different states have different legal guidelines and definitions, depending on how those statutes are written in PA, they actually could be subject to criminal and civil charges. Given that their own legal consultant advised them not to pass the measure, their obvious ignorance of the subject, their complete refusal to listen to available experts on the subject, there enough here to constitute grounds for charges in many states. On top of that, I don’t know if PA has this, but many states have a legal out for school districts referred to as an Attorney General’s opinion. They simply write up a request for the AG to review a proposed action, if the AG says it should be legal it’s basically a no harm no foul, get out of jail free card if they are later sued and it turns out that the action is illegal.

    Again, I’m not familiar with PA education law, my knowledge is limited to WI and AZ, their statutes could be quite different.

  19. #19 dogmeatIB
    January 29, 2007

    Duh…

    “there enough here to…”

    Should be:

    “there is enough here to…”

    duh, I speak enklish gud.

  20. #20 Ed Brayton
    January 29, 2007

    It is extremely unlikely that there could be any charges for criminal negligence in the case, or even a civil case for negligence to recover the legal fees. It should be noted, however, that their negligence ended up costing the community a huge amount of money. Their liability insurance policy was voided because they did not follow the advice of their own attorney, so the school board had to pay the cost themselves rather than having it covered by their insurance.

  21. #21 DuWayne
    January 29, 2007

    Fastlane -

    And Ms. Geesey is positively genius in comparison to some of the local boards here in Kansas.

    You know, we have the same problem in Portland, OR. Not nearly to the same extent as some places, but there are some morons just the same. I have been watching the meetings, as my son starts in this system next year. The major difference from Kansas being, the idiots here happen to be liberal (with one exception).

    I think Poly has a damned good point, the snark aside. I doubt I will ever run for school board (though, that may change as I age and have to deal with these people). But I am already getting involved with the school system, having taken an active role in the discussion of an oddly contentious issue, school uniforms v. uber strict dress code v. status quo. It has been a fantastic opportunity to get introduced to the system here and meet people who help shape policy in it.

    While it might be a little different in smaller municipalities, I have found it remarkably easy to get involved. There are a host of ways to get into involved, from attending school board meetings (relatively ineffectual – crowded, sharply limiting ones ability to contribute) – to getting involved at the sub-district level, through their board meetings, PTA meetings, community policy discussions or representing your local student population, on the school board advisory committee (the most effective, outside the school board itself).

    The key that I have found, is a serious lack of community members, willing to fill the roles. While many districts may not have so many ways to get involved, I would guarantee that most communities have roles that sorely need filling. Most are not terribly time consuming, the more time consuming, the more likely they pay a little for your time. As I understand it, Portland does better than most communities, at filling those positions – but they need many, many more – if we have it good, I’d hate to see districts that have it bad, or even average.

    There are plenty of opportunities for oversight, at the local level. There is every reason to get involved. I would have thought this would be the last place that would be in desperate need of it, but my kids district needs more. Often, one can just watch the school board meetings on public access. It is a great way to stay in touch with what they are doing. If they screw the pooch, rabble-rouse – make a stink about it, that’s not hard to do at the local level either.

    I would really like to get on the advisory committee, something I will work towards. They are the ones that shape the policies the school board votes on. My goal is to get there, by the time the five year old is in middle school – high school by the latest. The way the people who work in the system have glommed onto my interest in getting involved – it may come sooner than later. But I couldn’t dream of not getting involved with my child’s school – were I childless, I would likely never have gotten involved. Quite unfortunate too, as there is a lot of bullshit to battle, even here in Portland.

  22. #22 Lettuce
    January 29, 2007

    Poly makes an over broad point that isn’t logically sound:

    Now let me ask all of you oh-so-smart folks the following questions: Which of you has applied to run in your community’s next local school board elections? Which of you have run in the past for your local board?

    Because if the answer is you’ve done neither and don’t intend to change your behavior, you are part of the problem.

    This assumes there is something wrong with the current school board in each community in the nation and that this can be remedied by every single eligible citizen running for school board.

    If this is so, we’re all going to be busy running for almost every office on the ballot.

    I can tell you I won’t be, I might be running for one of them, it won’t be school board.

    But I will vote and I will attend meetings and work for others.

  23. #23 doublesoup tuesday
    January 29, 2007

    But I am already getting involved with the school system, having taken an active role in the discussion of an oddly contentious issue, school uniforms v. uber strict dress code v. status quo.

    Do tell. Which way is the wind blowing? Will you be dressing the tyke in a uniform?

  24. #24 DuWayne
    January 29, 2007

    doublesoup tuesday -

    It may happen, though if it does, it will probably just be the shirt, with strict rules on pants or skirts. One of the reasons being, they can justify subsidising the low income students if it is a uniform, easier than if they simply have to conform to a strict dress code.

    It is unlikely this will affect my kid actually – at least not for several years. This policy won’t be system wide – it only affects a handfull of schools in the system. Though it is likely that it will spread, if it comes close to the success they hope it will. But if it does, it will take years to pass.

    It’s very ironic that I find myself seriously supporting the idea. I am sure that Ed finds it rather odd himself. I was dead against uniforms, though supportive of fairly strong dress codes, when I got involved. But with all the evidence that I have been presented with, I think it is appropriate for the schools in question. I am getting involved in building momentum for a system wide, strict dress code.

    Though many of the arguments for uniforms, are specific to the schools in question – which is the biggest argument against them. The schools in question, house the lowest income students – including a substantial number of homeless students. I have rather mixed feelings about this myself. I support what it could do for the kids, but I don’t like singling them out like that.

    Like I said, oddly contentious issue, complicated too.

  25. #25 James
    January 30, 2007

    What are the voter participation rates in these kinds of elections? I ask becasue with low voter participation you are more likely to get extreme positions represented.

    DuWayne: In New Zealand high schools (that’s the 9th to the 13th years of education in New Zealand) uniforms are the norm, and it never did me any harm. Interestingly almost all New Zealand high schools are single-sex as well.

  26. #26 DuWayne
    January 30, 2007

    James -

    Unfortunately, the turn out tends to suck for school board elections. Which I imagine is largely responsible for the trend that brought a lot of these nuts into power – and has kept them there. I think as communities realize the need to remove them (such as in Dover), they come out in larger numbers – but I would imagine that these are temporary surges.

    Too many Americans seem to think that these are unimportant elections. They assume that it’s far more important to control through macro government, leaving it to the state and federal governments to control things. If they vote at all, people focus far more on the broader government, not their own, local government – including the people who decide what their kids are learning in school.

    Oddly enough, interspersed with the discussion of uniforms, was a discussion about segregating the sexes too. That didn’t last long – a bit radical for most Americans.

    My problem with the uniforms is that it would single out the kids in the affected schools. Honestly, I am not sure how I feel about it. I tend towards thinking the potential benefits outweigh the making them stand out. Especialy if they also stand out, because their school is becoming a model for the whole system.

  27. #27 mark
    January 30, 2007

    What are the voter participation rates in these kinds of elections?

    The longest line I ever had to wait in in order to vote was due to an issue deeply dividing school board candidates. If the schools are running smoothly, there generally is no big turnout, but if there’s an issue that may result in a big tax increase, the polls get packed.

  28. #28 Poly
    January 30, 2007

    Dogmeat writes:

    Being a teacher in the district bars me from running for/serving on the board…

    I thought that only board employees who actually disbursed public school funds – like a district busines administrator – were barred from running for/serving on school boards (obvious conflict of interest).

    Why would simply being employed as teacher be disqualifying? I’m not saying you are wrong – I don’t know your state’s laws or even what state you live in – I’m just curious why that would be on the books.

    Anyway, it’s obvious that not every state has this blanket disqualification. So that isn’t a general excuse, even for teachers.

  29. #29 dogmeatIB
    January 30, 2007

    For our state it is “district employee.” I’m guessing that the temptation is there to give pay raises, better benefits, etc., also you’re in the position to reprimand your boss (Principal/AP), heck even if you have the best interests in mind, you could end up getting preferential treatment just because of who you are. Then, to make matters worse you have the perception of preferential treatment, IE morale goes to hell because they believe you are getting preferential treatment.

  30. #30 dogmeatIB
    January 30, 2007

    Voter turnout varies from election to election, but the numbers are basically:

    Presidential: 50-60%
    Congressional: 30-40%
    Local/County: 20-40%

    Each of these will have spikes or valleys depending on issues. Most people don’t see the local elections as important, unfortunately they are 100% wrong, those are actually the elections that decide the most about their lives.

    Ed, the question of negligence depends on how you interpret the evidence and how the laws of the state are written. Again, I’m not familiar with PA, never taught there, don’t really want to live there, etc., but for example:

    15-341(A)-3 requires that governing boards “exclude all books, publications, papers, or audovisual materials of a sectarian, partisan, or denominational character.”

    15-341(E) states that district, board members, etc. are immmune from civil liability according to subsection A of this section (partially quoted) and section 15-342, but the waiver does not apply if they are guilty of:

    “gross negligence or intentional misconduct.”

    “Law. the failure to exercise that degree of care that, in the circumstances, the law requires for the protection of other persons or those interests of other persons that may be injuriously affected by the want of such care.”

    Again, one could argue that by ignoring the advice of their legal representatives, not researching the policy/program (or even bothering to read the textbook), not bothering to hear the advice of their own professional staff, all together, prior to adopting the program, constitute professional negligence.