Sisters fires biology teacher
Last updated 3/20/2007 at Noon
Kris Helphinstine lasted less than two weeks on the job as a new Sisters High School biology teacher. The school board fired him last Monday night on the recommendation of Superintendent Ted Thonstad for deviating from accepted curriculum by presenting materials supporting creationism to his biology class.
By a vote of three to one, with one member abstaining because of a lack of background information, the board terminated the employment of the probationary, part-time teacher.
Helphinstine, 27, disagrees with Thonstad's analysis of his actions.
"Actually, I did not teach creationism," Helphinstine said. "That's one thing I did not teach. I understand that's not my job. As far as what I taught. I taught ... natural selection, the effects of natural selection, genetic drifts and allele frequency that's what I taught."
That's not how some parents of students in the class see it. One parent, John Rahm, said his daughter reported that only "one day of 10" was devoted to the study of evolution, with the rest devoted to "Intelligent Design" materials.
"The test as well was 90-plus percent ID material," Rahm said.
When asked by The Nugget if he believes the Bible is the final authority when determining scientific fact, Helphinstine said that assumptions have been made about him that are not accurate. However, he acknowledged that he was not responding directly to the question.
The red flag went up last week when parents were asked questions by their puzzled students about information that was being discussed in their freshman biology class. Concern mounted when parents examined materials that Helphinstine was distributing to his students and they brought the matter to the attention of high school principal Bob Macauley.
According to Rahm the material was "conspicuously intelligent design type information or teaching. Actually if you took the material and Googled the crucial passages it takes you to a creationist Web site called Answers in Genesis, www.answersingenesis.org, that is run by Ken Ham. ... One of the lines in his (Ham's) mission statement for the Web site is any statement which contradicts the Bible is inherently false," Rahm said.
Helphinstine defended his usage of source material from the "Answers in Genesis" Web site telling The Nugget that some of the information presented is "good scientific fact."
Parents turned out in force at the school board meeting.
"I'm here to tell you that I am absolutely outraged to the deepest level of my bones that this curriculum, that this study session, was allowed to be presented to our families and our children without anybody looking over anybody's shoulder, and I would like to know how this occurred and why it occurred and what remedies the board has," said parent Dan Harrison.
Before board members made public statements, they asked superintendent Ted Thonstad for his recommendation.
"I thought Kris departed from the curriculum," Thonstad stated." He included controversial material in the content of his class without discussing that with his supervisors. I think he exercised poor judgment and strayed into an area that causes a great deal of concern on the part of the people in the district. I have a concern that because of that he might not conform to teaching our curriculum in the future, and I don't believe the district can take that risk, and for that reason I recommend that Kris be terminated."
Board member Glen Lasken said that although he is not sure that Helphinstine broke the law, "when you completely debunk evolution through your paper work that you're handing out, I don't think that at that point it really matters that you (Helphinstine) never said the word God in the classroom."
"I think Mr. Helphinstine wasn't teaching good science. ... I think his performance was not just a little bit over the line. I think it was a severe contradiction of what we trust teachers to do in the classroom," said board member Jeff Smith.
"I feel that he departed from the accepted curriculum and exercised poor judgment on his source material in particular...," chairman Gould said.
When the vote was taken, Dumolt abstained, as he had not attended the closed executive session when all issues surrounding the matter were discussed. Gould, Lasken and Smith voted in favor of termination. Steve Rudinsky voted against termination.
"What this teacher did was unacceptable behavior," Rudinsky said. However, Rudinsky wanted Macauley and veteran biology teacher Glenn Herron to recommend what action should be taken.
"Unfortunately, we couldn't get the input from the principal or from the master biology teacher who are intimately involved in the situation to speak up about it," Rudinsky said. "This was an unfortunate situation It was not just about the teacher. It was about oversight and how we manage new teachers. Do we mentor them? Are we watching what they do? So there's culpability on both sides."
According to the district's Human Resources Director Tim Comfort, "It is not common practice to pop in in the first week or two and observe your new staff formally. In general, you've got to have some faith in their training.... We don't operate thinking that every new employee is going to be at risk and do something wrong,"
According to Thonstad, he asked Helphinstine to resign to save both himself and the district from "negative fall out." However, Helphinstine refused asserting that he had broken no laws and resigning would be contrary to his principles.
The school district has gotten in trouble before for blurring the line between church and state. The State of Oregon is witholding $1.2 million in state school funds that had been earlier paid out for a disallowed homeschool program that involved students at the local private Christian school.