Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Letter to the Mount Vernon News

The following “letter to the editor” was submitted to the Mount Vernon News on March 30, 2009 in response to an editorial published by the News that same day.

Editor, the News:

The editorial of March 30th was an example of the type of thinking that landed the school system into this lengthy legal process in the first place.

You blamed the legal costs on R. Kelly Hamilton spending time on questions you deemed to be unimportant. The questioning Hamilton has been giving witnesses should have been done before the school board voted to start the process of firing John Freshwater.

In your editorial, you stated that Hamilton wasted 15 minutes asking about the use of quotation marks in the notes of the investigator from H.R. On Call, Inc. Surely the News considers details, like whether it was a person’s exact words or it was a paraphrase, to be important.

In the case of the investigators from HROC, their standard operating procedure was to not allow interviewees to have a chance to look at the handwritten notes made of the interview. Why wouldn’t Freshwater’s attorney spend time examining what the notes were supposed to mean?

Contrast the thoroughness of Hamilton with that of the attorney for the school board, David Millstone. When Zachary Dennis was on the witness stand, Millstone did not even ask him to verify the statement credited to him in the HROC report that the alleged burn to his arm lasted for “three to four weeks.” Millstone also failed to ask Dennis to verify if the photos that have been purported to be of his arm were actually of him.

Does the News really think Hamilton is doing too thorough of a job in representing his client? Maybe instead of questioning Hamilton, the News should be questioning the legal advice that Millstone is giving to the school board.

—Sam Stickle

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Second Student Tells of Seeing Accuser’s Arm without Burn

The following testimony took place between 3:54 P.M. and 4:27 P.M. on 3/26/09—in addition to testimony, this article also relies upon details from the witness’ sworn affidavit.

A possible explanation emerged during the sixteenth day of the John Freshwater hearing as to why Zachary Dennis—who has been used against his teacher in the legal and media battle—was never asked, while he was under oath, to identify the photographs that allegedly show burn marks on his arm.

The student on the witness stand, Ben Nielson, said that upon seeing the photograph published in the newspaper, that was purported to be of his fellow student Dennis’ arm, he said, “That’s not Zach’s arm.”

Photos were included in the report done by H.R. On Call, Inc that have been alleged to be of Dennis’ arm and caused by a Tesla coil. “The pictures below were provided by the parents,” the report stated.

(In an interesting move, the attorney for the Mount Vernon City Schools Board of Education, David Millstone, chose to not ask Dennis to look at the photos to verify if they were of his arm. Millstone also did not ask Dennis to verify the statement in the HROC report that said the burn marks remained on his arm for “three to four weeks.” The cross examination of Dennis was postponed—these questions may come up when he takes to the witness stand again.)

Nielson said that Freshwater used the Tesla coil during a lesson on the elements and to light up gases. He also said that the students got a chance to be touched by the static electricity device. Before the teacher touched volunteers with it, he first used it on himself by running it across his arm and then grabbing the tip of the device with his hand for five seconds, Nielson said. The student described Freshwater as smiling and laughing while holding onto the Tesla coil.

Nielson was the first volunteer. Freshwater ran the Tesla coil across the underside of his forearm—it did not hurt or sting, Nielson said. When he got back to his seat, he noticed that there was a pinkish reddish mark on his arm. He described it as looking a lot like a cross, but at the intersection, it was a little slanted so it could have been an “X.” Freshwater did not say that he was going to make a cross, Nielson said.

After class, Nielson saw Dennis—who is in a different period of Freshwater’s science class—in the hallway. Nielson said that he showed Dennis his arm and Dennis said that he had the Tesla coil applied to his arm the day before. Dennis told him that it did not really hurt and that the only time he really felt anything was when he was sweating in his hockey pads, Nielson said.

In the sworn affidavit by Nielson, he described comparing arms with Dennis. “When we compared our arms I could barely see any mark on his arm,” Nielson stated. “The mark on Zach’s arm was hardly visible. The mark on my arm was ten (10) times redder and much bigger than the mark on Zach’s arm.”

Nielson said that neither his arm nor Dennis’ arm had any raised or blistered skin. Within a day, Nielson said that the mark on his arm was gone.

The report by HROC also accused Freshwater of teaching creationism. Nielson said that Freshwater never pushed creationism or intelligent design in the classroom.

Another claim made by the HROC report concerned praying during a Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) meeting. “Mr. Freshwater participated and possibly lead a prayer during an FCA meeting that concerned a guest speaker’s health,” the report stated. “There is no conclusion as to whether such prayer was a ‘healing’ prayer.”

Nielson said that he was there during the alleged incident. The report identifies the “guest speaker” as being Pastor Zirkle—who happens to be Nielson’s youth pastor from Lakeholm Church of the Nazarene. Nielson stated in the sworn affidavit that he was the one who led that prayer:

“Zach Dennis and Dan Eddy were not at this meeting. About 18 students were there. Pastor Steve (Zirkle) is my youth pastor and he had just come from a doctor’s appointment and needed some kind of surgery. Students gathered around Pastor Steve to say a ‘popcorn’ prayer which is a prayer where anybody can pray. I lead the prayer for Pastor Steve and was excited to do so. I think Macy Malone maybe prayed. I do not remember 100% if Mr. Freshwater prayed then or at any other time. At most I am 50/50 whether Mr. Freshwater ever prayed. I know Mr. Freshwater did not make anybody pray at any meeting.”

Nielson said that if Freshwater had done anything that he thought was wrong, he would have reported it.

Nielson was one of the “five current or former students of Mr. Freshwater” that were interviewed by HROC. The investigators’ SOP was to not give interviewees a chance to look at the handwritten notes that were made of their statements or to make corrections to the notes. The investigators did not take a sworn statement from Nielson.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

School Administrator: Dishes It Out, but Can’t Take It

The following testimony took place between 9:59 A.M. and 3:36 P.M. on 3/26/09.

The school administrator testified in the hearing that she “might” have told the investigators from H.R. On Call, Inc that teacher John Freshwater was from a fundamental church with an extreme approach to the Bible. She never attended any services at Freshwater’s church but said that the school board received a letter from the church’s pastor a few years ago that she took negatively.

It was enough, Dr. Lynda Weston said, that she knew people who did attend there. Fundamental churches “adhere to certain philosophy and interpretations and things of that sort,” Weston said.

R. Kelly Hamilton, attorney for Freshwater, then asked Weston if she attended a “fundamental” church.

Weston objected to the question.

At this point, the hearing referee, R. Lee Shepherd, told Weston that he decided what a relevant question was—and that she did have to answer the question.

Weston muttered something.

The answer Weston ended up giving was that she belonged to a “congregational church” and that she did not think they describe themselves as fundamental.

She added that being “fundamental”, “liberal” or “conservative” determines or influences how a person teaches in the classroom. In her church, they would believe that intelligent design and creationism are religious issues—a person can have a belief in God and science as a separate entity, Weston said.

Following this exchange, a ten minute break was taken. During the break, Weston requested taking lunch break sooner than planned, which the referee agreed to.

Weston, formerly Director of Teaching and Learning at Mount Vernon City Schools, Ohio, was in administrative work with the school for ten years. Hamilton said that the report by HROC referred to Weston more than anyone else.

Mystery Student—

Hamilton asked Weston about a statement by HROC that there was allegedly a student negatively impacted on their learning by Freshwater.

Weston replied that that story was told to her by a third party—so has no names of the parents or the student. Allegedly, Freshwater asked for a show of hands from his class of those that believed in evolution; one student raised her hand and Freshwater said, “We will see about that.”

Weston has no evidence for the story but still insisted that it was true. She said that she is certain there is a girl from Freshwater’s class that felt insulted for having said she believes in evolution. Weston was not even able to remember who told her the story.

Religious Displays—

Weston defined a religious display as something that brings students’ attention to information that is religious, be that the Koran or a Christmas display.

Weston never saw any Bibles on desks at the middle school—including Freshwater’s desk.

Deciding whether it would be appropriate to post one Bible verse in a classroom would depend heavily on the purpose of having the verse there, Weston said.

Weston was shown a 4*6 photo of the Colin Powell/George Bush poster. She did not remember seeing this poster before. She said the photo was too small to read the words on it. The poster shows Colin Powell and President Bush in prayer. Written at the top of the poster is a portion of James 5:16: “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.”

Controversial Issues—

If a student asks about Easter or Good Friday, Weston said she would respond with information as to where the student could find answers on this topic, such as church resources and internet resources. She would assume that the student already knew he could ask his parents about those topics—it would be OK to suggest to the student that he talk to his parents, Weston said.

When students challenge a teacher on something, the teacher needs to respect the difference of opinion, Weston said. The teacher should then share with them what the accepted science is on the topic, if it is a science subject, Weston said.

Freshwater continued to teach science in a non scientific way, according to Weston. She said that at the eighth-grade level of Freshwater’s class, it is not appropriate to teach them controversy or critical thinking. She based this statement on her experience in elementary education and child development psychology.

In the school setting controversial issues can be taught, Weston said, if they are taught fairly and are based on established information. In such cases, she said that both or multiple sides of the issue need to be looked at.

H.R. On Call Report (HROC)—

Weston said that she has no knowledge as to why she was not called as a witness for the school board during their case-in-chief.

Weston said she was present during two different meetings with HROC—in between those two meetings she prepared a three page statement of her recollections of things related to Freshwater which she said was to make sure she had dates and information correct. She received a subpoena to turn over all documents related to the Freshwater matter to Hamilton. She understood the request, but turned the three page document in question over to the attorney for the school board, David Millstone, instead of Hamilton.

Hamilton asked Weston if she made the statement that is credited to her in the HROC report, that says, “Dr. Weston stated that she has had to deal with internal and external complaints about [Freshwater’s] failure to follow the curriculum for much of her 11 years at Mount Vernon.”

Weston said that she did make the statement—but upon reading it, when the report came out, she was frustrated with herself for having said it. It is an inaccurate statement. She notified the school in the summer of 2008 that she was adjusting that statement, Weston said.

The complaints about Freshwater, that Weston has, start in 2002. She said that the other complaints were ones she heard from other teachers, but has no personal knowledge of them.

Weston gave a list of five teachers and one family, Souhrada, who she said made complaints to her. She knows of no other people who made complaints to her.

Weston admitted that she never asked those five complaining teachers if they ever spent any time in Freshwater’s classroom. Weston said that her role was not in the supervising of teachers and that she had never been in Freshwater’s classroom.

The only documentation of those complaints were emails from two of the people and a handout that allegedly came from Freshwater’s class. She said she could not recall any further documentation of those six complaints. (Later in her testimony, she said she saw a couple more handouts—this may have been related to complaints that were not told to her by the complaining parties.)

Weston said that she thinks that the handouts create a body of evidence and that there is no need to research each one, no need to find out how they were used in the class—she knows that they were used, because they were in the students hands.

Weston said that Freshwater was being “underhanded” because of the handouts and because of having students question the textbook when the textbook did not match his philosophy. She has not talked to Freshwater about his philosophy, Weston admitted.

Hamilton reviewed Weston’s past job performance evaluations. One evaluation mentioned “importance of follow-up depending on item of information.” Weston said that she did not remember why that was in the review, but said that she does not think she has a pattern of problems with follow-up. “I believe I follow-up on things,” Weston said. She went on to add that people assume she had responsibility for things that she did not have responsibility for.

One of the evaluations of Weston mentioned “improving conflict resolution.” There was also a mention of “understanding how change impacts people.” Weston said that these evaluations are several years old. (Weston said that some or all—[note: not sure which ones she was referring to]—of the things in those evaluations did not show up again in future evaluations.)

Weston said that she did not tell HROC that Freshwater was not allowed to be teaching on evolution. She agreed that the eighth-grade content standards for science teachers include teaching evolution.

Zachary Dennis—

Weston said that she was not involved in the investigation of the alleged burn on Zachary Dennis’ arm. She said she saw the photos in the newspaper.

Weston said that she was the one who ran the child abuse prevention training for the school system. Training would be offered each year to make sure new teachers had their training. Weston said that reporting of the incident to Children’s Services would be required.

Andrew Thomson—

When Hamilton asked Weston if she knew a person by the name of Andrew Thomson, she immediately began to become emotional. She said that Thomson means a lot to her. Hamilton quickly asked Weston if she needed a ten minute break, but she responded that she thought she could keep going.

Thomson spoke at the August 4th school board meeting.

(Video of Andrew Thomson, he is the first person to speak on this video.)

Weston described Thomson as speaking in favor of Freshwater at the August 4th school board meeting. She talked with Thomson afterwards and told him that what he said took a lot of courage—she also said that during that time period Thomson was questioning whether or not he should remain a teacher, so Weston talked to him about staying in teaching, Weston said. She also said she told Thomson that there had been a lot heard on both sides in the Freshwater matter.

Freshwater’s 2003 Proposal—

Weston said that Freshwater did well with bringing his proposal in 2003 and that he handled it in the manner a teacher should. She said that the decision about that proposal made it very clear how Intelligent Design should be handled.

The curriculum committee did not approve the proposal—they decided that ID is not testable, or measurable, said they already teach critical thinking, and that ID was religious, Weston said.

Weston said that Tim Kieb—because he came from the same religious philosophy as Freshwater—told her he would talk to Freshwater and help him understand the difference between public education and religion.

After that proposal, Weston said she never asked Freshwater if he was teaching ID—she said that was not her job. What she did do was to provide opportunity of training for Freshwater. She did not talk to Freshwater about the handouts.

Weston claimed that Freshwater’s colleagues had trouble talking with him because he was so set in his ways about what science was. She offered as evidence of this that Freshwater did not attend the professional development meeting/training—but it was not required for him to attend.

Weston said that she found the handouts that she received from other people to be pretty much first hand information.

The only occasions that Weston heard Freshwater speak about ID and creationism was at meetings—she did not speak to him personally about the subject.

Weston’s “Concern”—

The HROC report contained this sentence credited to Weston: “She stated Mr. Freshwater has a lot of influence with his students that causes her concern.”

Weston said that she did make this statement. If students are taught something that is wrong they will believe it—she was concerned that Freshwater was causing his students “intellectual” harm.

Weston said that her retirement from the school district is final and that she has to be out of her office by April 1st.