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God complex: Alleged creationist teachings are causing an uproar in Arroyo Grande 

After receiving complaints from parents in Arroyo Grande and both local and national atheist organizations, the Lucia Mar Unified School District recently 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 April 29, Pettenger was listed as teaching only chemistry, and all life science course information and documentation was wiped from his teacher page.

New Times contacted Pettenger, AGHS Principal Conan Bowers, and Lucia Mar Superintendent Jim Hogeboom regarding the matter, but only received responses from Lucia Mar Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Chuck Fiorentino and Director of Secondary Education Hillery Dixon as of press time on April 29.

Fiorentino said the district is looking into the matter, and “investigating it as we would with any other complaint.” He didn’t respond to followup requests for comment from New Times.

Dixon declined to comment regarding Pettenger because the issue is a “personnel matter.” She 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 explicitly 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—one of the group’s members has a child who’s a student in Pettenger’s class, and she brought the issue to the group’s attention after her son complained to her.

New Times obtained a voicemail recording left for the family of the student in question. In it, Principal Bowers said he’s “investigating a curriculum issue” with “evolution and creationism” in Pettenger’s class, and asks for the family’s advice.

The mother—who agreed to answer questions from New Times via email and asked to be identified as “Sandra”—said that even though she’s had a religious upbringing and has sent all five of her children to church, she was taken aback by her son’s complaints that Pettenger was teaching creationism in science class.

“I attended a Christian school where evolution was taught in science class and creation was taught in Bible Studies,” Sandra wrote in an email to New Times. “When your child brings home paperwork he’s done for science class and one of the questions is ‘Did God really make the universe?’ it leaves you a bit dumbfounded.”

According to Sandra, her son became increasingly distraught, frustrated, and bothered by what he was being taught, and he reported that at least two other students in his class verbally objected to what Pettenger was teaching. Sandra said that during one class period, her son and six other students asked to leave Pettenger’s classroom.

Based on information from Sandra, 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.

Sandra said that email and letters from two national atheist organizations seemed to do the trick—as Pettenger has reportedly ceased any and all mention of creationism in class.

As for Pettenger, he didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment, but New Times procured an email he allegedly sent to Sandra’s husband defending his teaching of creationism.

“I understand that you might be worried I am teaching religion in a public school science class which is not the case,” reads that April 14 email. “There is debate within the scientific community about how to answer the question where did life come from. I feel it would be a disservice to my students not to present both sides of the argument.”

For Leidner of Atheists United, there’s no argument to have.

“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.”

Before Pettenger’s AGHS teacher page was largely wiped clean, there were links to a public Google Drive document-storing folder titled “Life Science Sem 2.” The folder contained vocabulary lists, textbook chapter reviews, quizzes, and—until recently—two PowerPoint presentations titled “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.

Both presentations contain extensive information about creationism, intelligent design, and Christianity.

“We want Mr. Pettenger to teach what he was hired by the school to teach, and that includes evolution,” Sandra wrote in her email to New Times. “If he cannot force himself to do that, he needs to stick to other subjects and stay away from life science.”

 

Staff Writer Rhys Heyden can be reached at rheyden@newtimesslo.com.

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