The School Board

Alan Bonsell.

In 2004, there were three self-identified fundamentalist Christians on Dover’s nine-member school board. One of them, a retired police officer named Bill Buckingham, headed the curriculum committee. Another had before joining the board circulated a petition (which attracted 1,500 signatures) calling for prayer to be reinstated in Dover’s public schools as a way to mitigate the trauma of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. But the board, reluctant to trigger the controversy inherent in public school prayer, had instituted instead a moment of silence after the Pledge of Allegiance. Alan Bonsell, the board’s head, was also a fundamentalist Christian and an avowed creationist—someone who believes that the world was created as described in the Bible. [1]

Bill Buckingham.

Bonsell and Buckingham had privately discussed their belief that creationism had a place alongside evolution in Dover public school science classes. The issue became news, however, in a public school board meeting on June 7, 2004. A Dover resident, herself a former member of the school board, had asked when the board would approve the purchase of new high school biology textbooks. Curriculum Head Buckingham responded that he would not approve the standard biology textbook proposed by the district’s science teachers; it was “laced with Darwinism,” he said, adding that he was seeking a book that gave creationism a fair hearing.

Joe Maldonado of the York Daily Record witnessed the exchange. He was a stringer—a part-time correspondent paid by the story—and he had been covering Dover and its school board meetings for years. Heidi Bernard-Bubb, a stringer for the competing York Dispatch , was also present. Both knew that Buckingham might just have ignited a severe controversy in a small town. Lebo read Maldonado’s coverage of the meeting in the Daily Record the next day and decided to keep an eye on the issue. [2]

Sure enough, the next public school board meeting on June 14 was packed with Dover residents who had read newspaper accounts of the previous meeting. Curriculum Head Buckingham reiterated his skepticism about Darwinism, and argued that there was nothing illegal about teaching creationism alongside it. “Nowhere in the Constitution does it call for separation of Church and State,” he said. [3]

Audience members were divided in their reactions. Several religious attendees applauded Buckingham’s support for teaching creationism. Bertha Spahr, veteran science teacher and head of Dover High School’s science department, rose to say that her teachers tried to be sensitive to students’ religious beliefs. The school had requested the “least offensive” biology textbook they could find, she said. Buckingham responded: “Two thousand years ago, someone died on the cross. Won’t somebody stand up for him?” [4]

Maldonado continued to cover the suddenly-dramatic school board meetings. Lebo, the reporter in charge of the education beat, sensed a larger story emerging. She had kept in regular contact with board members since assuming her new beat a month before, and she now began to press Curriculum Head Buckingham and School Board Head Bonsell about their creationist beliefs. Both told her frankly that they did not believe in evolution and were seeking a legal way to teach alternative theories that accommodated their religious beliefs.

[1] Lauri Lebo, The Devil in Dover (The New Press: New York), 2008, p. 11, 13-14, 21.

[2] Lauri Lebo, The Devil in Dover , p. 22-23.

[3] Lauri Lebo, The Devil in Dover , p. 24.

[4] Lauri Lebo, The Devil in Dover , p. 24.