Tuesday, December 15, 2009

John Freshwater: Investigation Didn’t Follow Contract

Science teacher John Freshwater was suspended without pay in the summer of 2008—the decision to do so was based primarily on a faulty investigation.

Freshwater testified recently, in the ongoing administrative hearing, that the investigators did not provide him with an opportunity to give a comprehensive written response to the allegations that were made against him. Mount Vernon City Schools’ master contract required the investigators to give him that opportunity before they completed their report.

H.R. On Call, Inc.

The firm hired to conduct the investigation, H.R. On Call, Inc., interviewed Freshwater on May 15, 2008. Freshwater, referring to a transcript he made of the recorded interview, said that in the meeting they discussed scheduling a second interview and that the union representative even said he would have an opportunity to give a comprehensive written response. (He said that shortly after the meeting he gave a copy of the recording to Bill White to give to HROC and that he gave a copy to the union.)

While waiting for the second interview, Freshwater prepared his written statement which consisted of individual affidavits responding to the allegations that he was aware of at the time. He explained that he prepared the written response so that HROC would have all the information to make a sound decision.

Also at the May 15 meeting, Freshwater said he discussed his intent to provide the names of additional people to be interviewed. The school contract required that all witnesses identified by the teacher be interviewed and written statements be obtained from the witnesses if possible.

The second interview never took place.

Freshwater testified that it was from the newspaper he learned the investigation had been completed. “Mr. Freshwater found out in the newspaper, not from the school or investigators,” according to Levi Stickle at cfacts.

Freshwater stated that the HROC report was not complete or neutral.

Bible on the desk

The year and a half controversy began with a complaint about Freshwater having a Bible on his classroom desk. The family that made this complaint has yet to be publicly identified. (For coverage of the controversy when it first started, see the article by Jami Kinton published in The Mainsfield News Journal, April 17, 2008.)

Freshwater received his Bible as a wedding present 29 years ago. While explaining why the Bible is so much of an inspiration to him, he became teary-eyed and had to pause. The Bible has many emotional associations for him—knowing that it is there helped him get through the day.

He wondered why the school permitted Lori Miller to have a Bible on her desk but yet would not treat him the same. “There should not be any difference,” Freshwater said.

Freshwater stated that the written and oral instructions from Principal Bill White were confusing regarding what he was supposed to do with the Bible. All items that White clearly identified as needing removed from the room were removed, Freshwater said.

Tesla coil

The HROC report included the allegation made by one student of being burned during a classroom demonstration of the Tesla coil. (See the article “Tesla Coil Matter Was Officially Resolved January 2008.”)

Freshwater said that he never endangered any student during his time as a teacher—did not brand a religious symbol on anyone and never saw any evidence of harm from his use of the Tesla coil.

One of Freshwater’s early performance evaluations directs him to “work closer with Jeff George in core course curriculum in physical sciences.” Freshwater said that he did and that is where he learned to use the Tesla coil.

An evaluation from October 8, 1999 mentions the Tesla coil being used in his class. Freshwater said that the evaluator, former Principal Jeff Kuntz, would have seen the hands on demonstration that allowed students to touch the spark from the device.

Freshwater characterized Kuntz testimony, of not remembering, as going “neutral.”

Fellowship of Christian Athletes / Alleged exorcism

During Fellowship of Christian Athletes meetings, Freshwater explained, he would be at the back of the room eating his lunch and sometimes reading a newspaper. He said that he did not exceed his role as monitor—did not lead or conduct prayer, did not initiate having the speakers come, did not say anything about removing Satan from anyone.

Freshwater said that he does pray silently on many different occasions throughout the day, referring to them as a Nehemiah “arrow prayers.” Anyone that thinks he prays out loud with the students should get an audio recording, Freshwater said.

He was not aware of any rule that prohibited him from talking to the FCA speakers when he saw them out in the community. (One example he gave was running into Father Hammond at a CareNet banquet. Since the students had already mentioned having Hammond come to speak, Freshwater brought the subject up with Hammond with the intent of finding out when he was coming.)

Freshwater said that he never mentioned anything about removing Satan from anyone’s body. Zachary Dennis had claimed this, even giving the description of Freshwater having his hands raised above his head.

Earlier in his testimony, Freshwater presented documentation that countered Dennis’ claim. The document “from Knox Community Hospital show[ed] that he was in therapy at the time, because of a 'Smoke Jumping' injury, and couldn't raise his hand above his head,” according to Levi Stickle at cfacts.

During the last few minutes of direct examination from his attorney, Freshwater stated that if the medical records show that Dennis is lying, Dennis cannot be believed on anything else.

Teaching beyond the standards

The June 20, 2008 resolution of the Mount Vernon Board of Education stated that Freshwater taught more than the standards for eighth grade science:

“Mr. Freshwater taught additional subject areas that are not included in the eighth grade American [sic] Content Standards, including but not limited to: thermodynamics, the periodic table, the big bang theory and the creation of the universe. By using class time to explore these subjects, Mr. Freshwater failed to properly instruct his students in the approved eighth grade American [sic] Content Standards. This serves as a disadvantage to his students, as the Mount Vernon City School District is built upon a progressive learning model, where each grade builds upon the curriculum standards of the courses in earlier grades.”

Freshwater pointed out that the textbooks provided by the school include mention of the big bang theory. One of the textbooks also contains a two page spread with the periodic table. No one had ever told him that there were things in the textbooks that he could not teach or that the students shouldn’t look at certain pages.

There are some things that he teaches as background information so that the students will be able to grasp other concepts. An example he gave was teaching the kids about the basics of cells and atoms—the students need to have an understanding of size, from atom to universe. He said that sometimes the students think that atoms are larger than cells.

In order to make sure that students pass the OAT test, Freshwater said he does review material from the sixth and seventh grades. His response to whether or not his students were taught properly—look at the OAT scores.

During his most recent year teaching, his students met and surpassed state testing standards. Freshwater’s students outdid all other eighth grade science classes at Mount Vernon Middle School.

Additional statements by Freshwater

• Never had a negative evaluation; one of the evaluations says “there is evidence of mutual respect”, “John goes out of his way to keep parents informed”, “he has a good grasp of the standards” and “he understands his subjects well.”

• Mount Vernon City Schools puts a lot of weight on the OAT scores—they are a test driven school.

• Did not teach the meaning of Good Friday or Easter in his classroom.

• Never said opposites in magnetism attract and that it should be that way for humans as well.

• The Giraffe and Woodpecker worksheets were created by a former student; up until he stopped using them in 2003 they were used to show examples of improper use of scientific method. (These documents were submitted to HROC by Paula Barone.)

• He used stories from Chicken Soup for the Soul with the goal of providing moral or philosophical growth. (Ohio Revised Code 3313.601 states “No board of education shall prohibit a classroom teacher from providing in the teacher’s classroom reasonable periods of time for activities of a moral, philosophical, or patriotic theme.”)

• One of the evaluations talks about his “unconditionals” in a positive manner; the assignment, although extra credit, was for students to learn about unconditional love by helping someone without expecting anything in return from that person.

• The Watchmaker video was emailed to him; he watched it on his computer before school with his daughter and another person. His daughter Jordan showed it at FCA.

• His previous testimony regarding referring about a dozen students to Answers in Genesis needed clarifying; what he had been talking about was taking a van load of students and adults to the creation museum in Kentucky.

• His previous testimony about hydrosphere being a theory was incorrect; hydrosphere is only a hypothesis.

• It is permissible to allow students to debate creation and evolution; this debate was only held in one period during the school year 07-08 and was something these students wanted to do. His involvement was instructing them to research their position, giving them a few rules and supervising the debate to keep it civil.

• The HROC investigators did not ask him why he had the books, which were critical of evolution, in his classroom cupboard; he did not teach from these books or read them during class. He received most or all of them as gifts.

• People should not make assumption about someone based on the books that person owns.

• He did not make assumptions about Dr. Lynda Weston, former Director of Teaching & Learning, based on the books in her office. One of the books, which had her name on the inside cover, was The Case Against Standardized Testing—claims made in the book include “high scores often signify relatively superficial thinking” and “many of the leading tests were never intended to measure teaching or learning.”

• He received the Colin Powell/George Bush poster through his school mailbox. Two of his children are in the military, with one of them expecting to go to Afghanistan.

• His statement about referring Zachary Dennis to answersingenesis.org was in context of giving permission to Dennis to use the lab computers for research. Dennis had specifically asked if he could visit that site and Freshwater gave him permission; Dennis was only on the computer for five minutes until the bell rang.

• He had nothing to do with Dennis being assigned to his field trip group.

• Never made the statement that Jim Stockdale credited to him about gays; Stockdale may have overheard a conversation Freshwater had with other teachers regarding the Time magazine article about the gay gene.

• The use of the word “here” was not for the purpose of indicating that the textbook contradicted the Bible or his religious beliefs.

• He never tried to promote the Loch Ness Monster as a scientific concept.

• He never said that Good Friday should be called the greatest Friday ever.

• Did not assign Bible memorization to students; but has had his own children memorize scripture.

• He was sensitive to the fact that students did not want to come to the hearing to testify; some students were not called because he did not believe they could deal with being on the witness stand.

• He has no ill or bad feelings towards Catholics.

• Did not teach religious beliefs in his classroom.

• Was never a member of the union and had no knowledge of the grievance process.

Freshwater described himself as a positive person but that over the last year and a half he has become more cynical. This situation has also been hard on his family. Even with that, he said that he is not so disgruntled that he couldn’t work at Mount Vernon City Schools. He could walk in and pick up right where he left off—same administration and same board.


Additional media coverage of Freshwater’s recent testimony:

“Freshwater’s science classroom revisited” by Pamela Schehl for the Mount Vernon News. (December 9, 2009).

“Teacher continues defense” by Pamela Schehl for the Mount Vernon News. (December 11, 2009).

“Defense [doesn’t] rests in Freshwater hearing” by Pamela Schehl for the Mount Vernon News. (December 12, 2009).

(Note: Due to prior commitments, I was not able to be at the hearing for all of Freshwater’s testimony—as indicated in places, other sources were consulted for a few of the details in this article.)

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