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RRPS Reconsiders Science Policy

By Elaine D. Briseño
Journal Staff Writer
    The Rio Rancho school board is considering rescinding a science policy that created controversy when it was adopted in 2005 because opponents claimed it was a clever way to slip religion into biology class.
    Three of the board's five members, Divyesh Patel, Margaret Terry and president Lisa Cour, indicated Monday at a Rio Rancho Public Schools board meeting they would like to see the policy removed from the books. The policy was placed on the agenda by Patel and Terry. Monday was the first reading, so no action could be taken. The board could take action during the second reading, scheduled for Dec. 3.
    Science Policy 401 was passed to ensure, supporters said, that when evolution is taught, teachers allow students with differing opinions to express their beliefs.
    But teachers, as well as some community members, vehemently opposed the policy because its proponents were board members Don Schlichte, Marty Scharfglass and former member Kathy Jackson, all with strong Christian beliefs and ties. The teachers and others claimed it was a back-door way to make biology instructors teach intelligent design, the belief that life forms are too complex to be explained solely by Darwinian evolutionary theory.
    Cour said she opposes the policy now as much as she did when it was first brought before the board. She said it repeats verbatim what is already required in the state standards and that it treats the district's science teachers unfairly .
    "My concern is that this policy puts our science teachers under the microscope," she said. "We trust teachers in other departments to teach to the curriculum. Why don't we trust the science teachers?"
    Both Patel and Terry agreed the policy is redundant and unnecessary. Patel said critical thinking is expected from students in all areas and he does not understand why the policy specifically targets biology class. Patel said evolution is a theory that has been proven again and again over time.
    Schlichte said many people in the community disagree and have alternate beliefs. He said students should be allowed to express that in biology class as part of the critical thinking process.
    "I don't agree with what you said," Schlichte told Patel. "Evolution is not an established fact, especially when it comes to the origins of life. What we are teaching is not fact. It's theory."
    Schlichte agreed that maybe the policy does not do much, other than repeating state standards. He said the district might need to adopt another policy to make sure those who have different beliefs about the origins of life are protected and allowed to speak up about those beliefs in class.
    "There is a degree of intimidation for those who do not believe in Darwinian evolution," he said. "It was our mistake not to work with the staff before passing the policy. But we need to make sure that kind of discussion is not suppressed by staff."
    Cour read a statement by Scharfglass, who was absent because of a family emergency. He said he continues to support the policy and that having it does not hurt anyone. He said the board has not given teachers a specific way to follow the policy and that it's merely a framework.
    Superintendent Sue Cleveland said the policy does not require the teaching of intelligent design in the classroom. Nonetheless, she said, the policy is an emotional issue.
    "There are three parts to this," she said. "There is what it says. There is what people think it says, and there is where people think the policy will take us."
    Three teachers from Rio Rancho High School and a retired engineer spoke in opposition to the policy, saying philosophical discussions about the origins of life should not be required in science class. They said that those are more appropriate for philosophy or religion class.