The makings of a bad defense
The makings of a bad defense
MIKE ARGENTO. York Daily Record, Friday, Oct 21, 2005
HARRISBURG Somewhere along the journey from obscurity to courtroom No. 2 in the U.S. Middle District Courthouse this would have been in 2004 Supt. Richard Nilsen of the Dover Area School District received a memo that indicated that a policy might have been violated during the debate over adoption of the new biology curriculum, the one in dispute now. That suggested violation, which the school's Curriculum Advisory Council had been bypassed, "raised a red flag," Nilsen testified Thursday during Day 13 of the Dover Panda Trial.

He ordered the member of his administration charged with ensuring the district's policies are followed to investigate. He found, in a very short time, that no policy had been violated. Order had been restored.

OK, let's go back in time.

In January 2002, Nilsen presided over a board retreat, an informal meeting during which administrators and board members could air ideas and concerns and whatnot.

Nilsen, glancing at his notes from the meeting, remembered that then-board member Casey Brown talked about full-day kindergarten. He remembered then-board member Noel Wenrich mentioned discipline and other issues. And, referring to his notes, he said board member Alan Bonsell discussed creationism. Asked to recall what Bonsell said about creationism, Nilsen said he didn't remember and his notes didn't say.

So Bonsell could have said, "Boy, it sure would be a stupid idea to try to jam creationism into our science curriculum." Or maybe he said, "You know, if we try to introduce creationism into the science curriculum, we'd be in deep doo-doo." Or maybe he said, "If we try to cram creationism into the school, we're going to wind up spending more than a month in some stuffy courtroom."

Whatever he said about creationism, it didn't raise any red flags.

Moving forward to March 2003 and another of these informal meetings, Nilsen said he remembered that Bonsell expressed concern about discipline and that he had heard from frustrated parents that there was a mixed standard when it came to dress and that some students were dressing inappropriately for school and when their parents tried to intervene, they said all the kids dressed like that.

Nilsen's notes also reflected that Bonsell talked about creationism. But he didn't write down anything Bonsell might have said, and he testified that he couldn't remember Bonsell taking about creationism. (Other witnesses had no such memory problems and recalled Bonsell saying he'd like to see creationism taught along with evolution.)

Again, no red flag raised.

Let's review.

A bureaucratic policy might have been violated.

Red flag.

A board member of a public school starts spouting off about creationism.


No red flag.

Not even that, Nilsen testified he doesn't even remember it.

You know, I'm not a public school administrator, but if I were and one of the members of the school board started talking about creationism, I think it would raise more than a few red flags.

As Nilsen's testimony began, the defense came into focus.

First, he seems to be relying on the "can't-remember" defense. So, did you indeed shoot Shorty? Can't remember.

I didn't say it was a good defense.

The other is the some-other-dude-did-it defense.

Again, I didn't say it was a good defense.

In this case, the other dudes are former board member Bill Buckingham and former high-school Principal Trudy Peterman.

Let's start with Buckingham.

Nilsen's testimony pretty much painted Buckingham as, well, a drug-addled loose cannon. He was concerned about books "laced with Darwinism." His wife showed up at a school-board meeting and started preaching from the Gospel a scene Nilsen described as "embarrassing." (He also said he's still not sure what she was talking about, as he seemed to be oblivious to board members spouting off about creationism.)

And, when asked whether Buckingham was present at a certain meeting, Nilsen recalled he wasn't, that the board member was off having knee surgery and "had been hospitalized for substance (abuse), OxyContin."

Peterman, he said, tended to blow things "out of proportion," as she did when she wrote a memo to the administration warning that the board wants to teach creationism "50-50" with evolution.

Like I said, it's not a good defense.

Mike Argento, whose column appears Mondays and Thursdays in Living and Sundays in Viewpoints, can be reached at 771-2046 or at Read more Argento columns at