While Ian Watson was president of the Mount Vernon Board of Education he fought the subpoena that ordered him to appear to testify at the hearing for the teacher he had voted to consider firing. All legal avenues to avoid appearing closed once the hearing outlasted his term in office.
Topics covered during Watson’s testimony at Wednesday’s and Thursday’s John Freshwater hearing ranged from his own experience with the Tesla coil to his understanding of what constitutes a religious display.
The June 20, 2008 resolution by the school board stated that Freshwater “branded” a cross onto the arm of a student. Watson testified that he did some personal investigation into whether the Tesla coil was capable of burning human skin.
Watson, in April of 2008, observed a demonstration by teacher Elle Button of the Tesla coil igniting a small piece of paper. Button held the paper in front of a metal cabinet and allowed the spark from the Tesla coil to pass through the paper.
After the demonstration, Watson asked Button to use the coil on himself. She refused. Watson said that Button also told him that she was going to leave if he was going to apply the spark to himself.
Freshwater’s attorney, R. Kelly Hamilton, asked Watson, “So, after you saw [the paper] burst into flames, you still wanted it applied to you?”
Watson replied, “Doesn’t sound like the brightest thing, but, yes.”
Watson said that about a day later a mark did appear on his arm where he had run the spark across. On a pain scale of “0” to “5,” Watson said the spark felt like a “3.”
The demonstration was in middle school principal Bill White’s office. White, who has an electronic implant, was six feet away from the demonstration. Watson said that Button did tell him about the danger of a person such as White coming in contact with the device.
After the experiment, which Watson said was not scientific, he decided that it had been a wasted effort and would not resolve the allegation one way or the other.
Freshwater denies that anyone was burned in the classroom demonstration.
Conversations with Stephen Dennis
The Dennis family brought most of the complaints against Freshwater that resulted in the teacher’s suspension without pay.
Watson said that he met Stephen Dennis a few years ago in connection with some work at First Knox National Bank. Watson, now retired from the bank, said that the bank would sometimes do business with Dennis’ brokerage.
In March of 2008, Dennis came to the bank to talk about some concerns that he had with the school, Watson said.
Those concerns, Watson said, included “his son being burned,” religious information in the classroom, Freshwater’s role with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, questions that Dennis said his son was asked by Freshwater in school, and an extra credit assignment that Dennis said Freshwater gave his son.
Watson said that the first time Dennis contacted him, he told Dennis to talk with superintendent Steve Short. Dennis ended up having over six conversations with Watson. Watson said that he did not know why Dennis kept coming back.
Watson said that it seemed that within a week or two of talking with Dennis, there was talk of a lawsuit by Dennis. Dennis did inform him that he had hired an attorney, Watson said.
Watson defined a religious display as being a “grouping of religiously based articles such that when you perceive it you have an opinion that religion is being represented.”
There is no black or white line as to what constitute a religious display but the more religious items there are the closer it comes to being a problem, Watson said. It is possible, he said, for just one item to be an issue.
Watson said that in the written school policy on religion in the curriculum a Bible in and of itself is not an issue. His personal view is that allowing a teacher to have a Bible on his work desk is bad policy.
The school board was OK with a Bible sitting on someone’s desk, Watson said.
The “George Bush/Colin Powell” poster, which Freshwater had posted in the classroom, would not be an issue in and of itself, Watson said.
Freshwater also had posted in his classroom, for security reasons, several book covers over an interior window. These covers, which Freshwater said he obtained from the school offices, included a copy of the Ten Commandments and a quote about good thinking.
(An expert witness, Michael Molnar, previously testified that the book covers are not inherently religious because there are other quotes on the covers in addition to the Ten Commandments.)
Hamilton asked Watson if the school offices keep items that are legal or illegal. Watson replied that “generally we would keep legal items” in the offices.
Freshwater removed the book covers when requested, in writing, to do so by school administration.
Hamilton showed Watson a photo of another teacher’s classroom that included a poster of how to memorize the Ten Commandments, a poem, lyrics from a Christian song and verses from the Psalms. Watson said that he would question those items and that they could be a problem.
Additional statements by Watson:
• Isn’t able to remember the details to answer all of the questions because these events took place two years ago.
• Doesn’t recall saying what a news story attributes to him of a family requesting that Freshwater’s Bible be removed. The family that made the complaint about the religious display was the Dennis family but they never specifically said they had a problem with the Bible on the desk. At the time he was hopeful that the parents and Freshwater could “find common ground.”
• Never talked with Dr. Lynda Weston about the complaints she says she received about Freshwater. (Weston is the former Director of Teaching and Learning for the Mount Vernon City Schools.)
• Serves on the board of the First Congregational United Church of Christ. Same church that Weston attends.
• Was in contact with the ACLU sometime in April of 2008. Contacted them because he “was intrigued on what their position would be.” The ACLU told him that it was OK for students to have Bibles on their desks at school as long as it wasn’t during an educational time but that a teacher having a Bible sitting on his desk was an extremely gray area and it would be better to keep the teacher’s Bible out of sight. His opinion would have been the same even if he had not contacted the ACLU.
• Did see Jim Beroth at SIPS coffee shop and is aware that Beroth’s daughter says she saw someone talking with him. Although he does not remember the conversation happening the day he saw Beroth, he did talk with someone about bringing in Patricia Princehouse as an expert witness.
• The school’s written policy of how complaints are to be handled was not completely followed through regarding the complaints against Freshwater.
• Did tell Jeff Cline at a school board meeting that if he had a complaint about a book that he should follow the policy and file a written complaint. The board polices should be followed.
• Someone is showing insubordination when he is in direct opposition to what his supervisors have directed to be done. In response to Hamilton asking a hypothetical question about a supervisor telling an employee to jump out a window: “There are clearly some qualifiers involved.”
• Does not know of any past teachers in the school district that have been suspended without pay.
• The H.R. On Call report was satisfactory to the school board. Considers the report to be fair. To his knowledge the report is accurate.
• Did not participate in any of the HROC interviews during the investigation. Did not receive a draft copy of the report before it was released.
• As to why one of the HROC investigators referred to him by his first name, Ian, during their interview with Freshwater, which Watson was not at: “Many people call me by my first name.”
• Did not keep a “black binder” about Freshwater at the bank.
• Does not recall when he learned that Freshwater was not a member of the union.
• Suspects that it is Short who ultimately has the responsibility to insure that the contract is followed.
• Teachers are allowed to use materials from the library.
The school board’s attorney, David Millstone, did not ask Watson any questions.