Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Jewish Student Finds Ten Commandments Offensive

The following testimony took place on 10/29/08—this article relies on the official hearing transcript for details of the testimony.

The student—testifying in a hearing that will determine if his former teacher keeps his job—said that the teacher kept two copies of the Ten Commandments displayed in the classroom. “I didn’t like being in that classroom and being Jewish,” James Hoeffgen said.

Hoeffgen said that there were other items in the classroom that he deemed to be “Christian” but the Ten Commandments was the only item he could name or describe.

The student—a high school senior during the time of his testimony—was called as a witness by the school board in the hearing for Mount Vernon, Ohio, eighth grade science teacher John Freshwater. The hearing began in October of 2008 and has yet to be completed.

Freshwater removed the Ten Commandments from his classroom when requested to do so, in writing, by school administration.

Hoeffgen said that the topics Freshwater covered in class included the age of things. “[W]e were taught such things such as the earth may have been around for only a few thousand years,” Hoeffgen said, “and that carbon dating was inaccurate and things like dinosaurs lived with humans and, for instance, the Loch Ness Monster existed still today.”

One of the handouts he received in class was titled “Survival of the Fakest,” Hoeffgen said. He said that handout, or another handout, contained information about faked drawings of animal embryos that originated in the 1800’s—the handout said that the drawings were still being used in textbooks.

There was an article published in the Dec2000/Jan2001 of American Spectator with the same title and that covered the same subject that Hoeffgen described. (For those that have access to OhioLink, here is the article “Survival of the Fakest” from American Spectator.)

Freshwater never used the words “Intelligent Design” or “Creationism,” Hoeffgen said.

Hoeffgen said he believed that some of the things being taught in class were based out of Christianity. He said he did pass his proficiency test for science.

John Freshwater Wanted Hearing To Be Before School Board

One year ago today, John Freshwater requested that the school board hear his case instead of taking it to a referee. “I request the hearing be a public hearing before the school board,” Freshwater wrote in a letter dated June 30, 2008.

Mount Vernon City School District Board of Education voted on June 20, 2008 to start the process of firing Freshwater. By law, Freshwater had ten days from receiving receipt of the board’s resolution to request a hearing. His attorney, R. Kelly Hamilton, said that Freshwater received the notice by certified mail “on/or about June 24.”

Ohio revised code 3319.16 states that a teacher may request the hearing to take place before the school board.

The board elected to have the hearing take place before a referee—with the board being able to make the final decision on retaining Freshwater after receiving the referee’s recommendation.

Attorney for the board, David Millstone, did not respond to a request for comment.

Freshwater spoke to the board during their meeting on August 4, 2008. In his comments to them, he responded to their choice to have the hearing before a referee. “Why not you?” Freshwater asked. “I want you, I don’t want a referee. That’s who should hear it, not a referee, not someone we don’t even know.”

Sunday, June 28, 2009

School Overlooked Key Information

The following testimony took place on 4/2/09—this article relies on the official hearing transcript for details of the testimony.

Six days after the investigative report came out—that he was not interviewed for—teacher Andrew Thompson spoke with the school’s superintendent about concerns he had with the report. Thompson would later publicly describe the report as an “incomplete, biased, and all-out lie investigation.”

During the 2006-2007 school year, Thompson served as an intervention specialist with the Mount Vernon City School System. He spent approximately 180 days in John Freshwater’s classroom that year. The job required following a group of 15 students—who were on individual education plans (IEP)—around to their classes and then following up with them at the learning center.

Thompson was a student in Freshwater’s class in 1998.

H.R. On Call (HROC)

Thompson said he went through the report making notes—he then decided to talk with Superintendent Steve Short. “I felt if I had stayed back and not have shared anything,” Thompson said, “then I would be letting a good man and a good teacher be falsely accused.”

The meeting with Short—on June 26, 2008—lasted for about an hour, Thompson said.

One of the things brought up was a discussion Thompson had with Riley Swanson, one of the students interviewed by HROC. “He was very frustrated with the investigation,” Thompson said, “from the standpoint he would try to answer a question and he felt like he was interrupted and could not share what he was wanting to say and the words were twisted around and used in a way in which he didn't in any way intend.”

Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA)

Thompson attended approximately 69 FCA meetings in 2006-2007 and about the same amount in 2007-2008.

One thing that both Thompson and HROC agreed upon was that there was no evidence that Freshwater violated the school’s policy requiring students to have attendance slips before gaining admittance to FCA meetings.

Thompson said that Freshwater did not even voice any complaints about the policy that began in 2007. Attendance did begin to dwindle following the implantation of the policy—and there are currently no FCA meetings being held at the Mount Vernon Middle School, according to Thompson.

The report made mention of two boxes of Bibles that were previously in Freshwater’s classroom. Thompson said that those Bibles were placed there by students who were a part of FCA. Freshwater’s classroom was used by the students for FCA leadership meetings—the regular meetings were held in the band room.

HROC stated that Freshwater had exceeded the role of a monitor and had actively participated—Thompson countered that by saying Freshwater did not do a lot of talking in the meetings and did not give the impression of trying to lead the meetings.

A guest speaker would often be brought in to FCA to give a short devotional—there were times when students would bring videos to show. One of the videos was The Watchmaker, Thompson said.

Religion in the classroom

The HROC report claimed that Freshwater “engaged in teaching of a religious nature.”

Thompson said that he did not hear Freshwater speak about religion in the classroom—either when he was a student or later as an intervention specialist.

The HROC report claimed that Freshwater taught “creationism and related theories and call[ed] evolution into question.”

Thompson also did not hear creationism taught in class.

The word “here”

The word “here” was used in Freshwater’s class by students when they came across something in the textbook that was not necessarily fact, Thompson said. He did not get the impression that the word “here” had any religious meaning.

The word was used in connection with the age of things. “200 billion years ago would be an example,” Thompson said, “versus maybe something that happened 150 years ago that's been reported and observed.”

Thompson said that having the students use the word “here” was effective in engaging the students in the content of the textbook. It showed that they were not just “off into space” but were actively listening, Thompson said.

At the beginning of the school year, Freshwater would spend time explaining to the students the scientific process and helping them to understand the difference between fact and hypothesis, Thompson said.

The HROC report included a complaint from a “ninth grade science teacher” that alleged having to re-teach students. The example in the complaint: “mis-teaching science (i.e. that there’s some sort of ‘difference between facts and hypotheses’).”

Bible on the desk

The HROC report stated that “Freshwater was insubordinate in failing to remove all of the religious materials from his classroom.” Those items, according to HROC, were Freshwater’s “personal Bible on his desk and one checked out of the library” and “at least one poster.”

Thompson said that when he was a student he did not notice Freshwater’s Bible. He did notice it when he was in the classroom as an intervention specialist but it was not prominent. He described Freshwater’s desk as having two levels and that the Bible was not on the top. “I hate to say that the book was insignificant,” Thompson said “but, visually, it was insignificant compared to other things on the desk.”

Thompson said he never saw Freshwater teaching or preaching from the Bible.

When Thompson discussed the HROC report with Short, he mentioned that he also had a Bible on his desk and that it had been there during the time Freshwater was being told to remove the Bible. Thompson said that Short did not give any comment on that statement.

“George Bush/Colin Powell” poster

The HROC report reference to “at least one poster” is the “George Bush/Colin Powell” poster.

(The photograph was taken January 28, 2003. © Brooks Kraft/CORBIS. The poster was printed by Freeport Press, Inc.)

Thompson stated that he did see the poster in Freshwater’s classroom but that the Bible verse—James 5:16—across the top of it was covered up.

The poster to him was not a religious item. “I saw it as a poster of our leadership,” Thompson said. “It would be no different than our office in the middle school as soon as you go in has a – has several pictures of President Obama.”

When the HROC report refers to the poster by name, it calls it the “Colin Powell poster.” Thompson observed that Freshwater was not asked to remove the poster but that it was still mentioned in the report. “[I]t was put in as if Mr. Freshwater was guilty of being insubordinate for not taking down the Colin Powell poster,” Thompson said.


The HROC report included in the summary of their findings a reference to the movie “Expelled.” “Freshwater gave an extra credit assignment for students to view the movie ‘Expelled’ which does involve intelligent design,” the report stated.

Watching the movie “Expelled,” and then writing about it, was one option on the extra credit assignment. Students were not required to go and watch the movie.

In the meeting Thompson had with Short, he showed Short the content standards that Freshwater was supposed to be teaching. Thompson said that Freshwater even kept a copy of the content standards up on the classroom door and visible to students as they walked in. “And one of the key things that are in the science standards is ethical practices,” Thompson said. “And it says, ‘Explain why it is important to examine data objectively and not let bias affect observations.’”

Supplemental resources

Thompson said that not only are teachers allowed to use supplemental resources, but that they are encouraged to do so. “Our administrators have, I feel, done a good job of letting us know that good teachers are ones who make the classroom come alive, and that's not just of the textbook,” Thompson said. “So what we need to do is go teach those standards.”

Tesla coil

While Thompson was in the classroom as an intervention specialist, he saw Freshwater demonstrate the Tesla coil. About 18 students out of a class of 23 participated in a static electricity daisy chain.

Freshwater also ran the spark across his own arm to make a mark—after which about three students asked to have the same thing done to their arm, Thompson said.

No student was harmed or made any complain about the Tesla coil, Thompson said.

Attorney for Freshwater, R. Kelly Hamilton, showed Thompson the photos that have purported to be of a student allegedly burned by the Tesla coil. Thompson had seen the photos in the newspaper but said that he never saw what was depicted in the photos on a child’s arm.

Thompson said he shared his experiences with the Tesla coil with Short and asked why only one person would be burned if multiple people had used it. He also asked Short if there was any way that the photo could be validated—considering the extent that photos can be manipulated with modern technology.

Thompson reported that Short—although he did listen—said he was not able to say a lot about the matter or ask many questions.

Ohio Achievement Test (OAT) scores/re-teaching

The HROC report included the statement that Freshwater’s students had to be re-taught. “During interviews with high school science teachers expressed frustration and concern regarding having to ‘re-teach’ concepts that in their opinion had been improperly taught by Mr. Freshwater at the eighth grade level,” the report stated.

Thompson said that he had no knowledge that Freshwater’s students needed re-taught—to the contrary, Freshwater’s students passed the OAT at a rate of 77 percent. For the “Life Science” portion of the test, which included evolutionary theory, they passed at a rate of 89 percent. Freshwater’s student passed at a higher rate than any other Mount Vernon Middle School eighth grade science class—Freshwater met and exceeded state standards.

(Also see the article "Head Teacher at High School: Never Said Freshwater’s Students Needed Re-taught.")

“Peanut butter and jelly”

One of the demonstrations Freshwater would do to help students understand how scientists work is to have the students help him make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, Thompson said:

“Mr. Freshwater brings in loaves of bread and a big thing of peanut butter and a big thing of jelly. And you ask the kids how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. You think it would be simple. He follows word for word what the kids say. It ends up being all over his hands and all over the place. They have a hard time correctly telling him what he has to do.

“His point was, going with the scientific theory, you have to follow step by step by step. As a scientist, you have got to document. You've got to be able to go step by step and follow directions to a T.”

Dr. Lynda Weston

Thompson spoke to the Mount Vernon City School District Board of Education on August 4, 2008 during the public participation portion of the board’s meeting. It was at this time that he described the HROC report as an “incomplete, biased, and all-out lie investigation.”

(Thompson is the first person to speak on the video.)

Following the board meeting, Dr. Lynda Weston emailed Thompson and requested a meeting with him, Thompson said.

(Weston, formerly Director of Teaching and Learning at Mount Vernon City Schools, was in administrative work with the school for ten years. Weston is cited multiple times for information in the report by HROC.)

Thompson said that the initial subject of the meeting with Weston only took five minutes but that the rest of the meeting took about an hour. The conversation turned to what Thompson said at the prior board meeting. “[S]he asked me why I thought I needed to go to the Board and present what I did at the board meeting,” Thompson said.

According to Thompson, Weston told him that in the future he was supposed to get her permission before speaking to the board.

Weston expressed her belief as to why Thompson was supporting Freshwater as being because they “share the same religion,” Thompson said. He said he then felt the need to defend his reason for speaking out about the Freshwater matter. “[I]f it were another teacher that I felt was being wrongly accused of something and I had knowledge of that,” Thompson said, “and they may or may not share the same religion as me, […] my actions would be the same.”

The conversation then took another turn. Thompson said that Weston mentioned the name of his brother-in-law and asked Thompson, “Well, what do you think about his decision to leave the school district?”

After Thompson explained his brother-in-law’s reason for leaving, he said that Weston then asked, “Well, are you going to do the same?”

He replied, “No.”

Weston’s next question, according to Thompson, was, “Are you considering going into the ministry? I think you would make a good minister.”

Thompson said that eventually Weston understood that he had no plans of switching careers. They then discussed the possibility of Thompson getting into a master’s program and Thompson said that Weston helped him with some of the details for that.

Thompson was unsure of how to take Weston’s comments during their hour discussion—some things were complementary but made him feel unwanted as a teacher. “I felt like […] if I said the wrong thing, that I would lose my job,” Thompson said.

Thompson said that there have been a few times, since the controversy with Freshwater started, that he has questioned working for the Mount Vernon school system. He said he is concerned about what he described as a “slippery slope”—teachers losing their sense of being free to be creative and effective in their teaching over concerns that someone might complain over the smallest thing.

For Weston’s version of this conversation, see the article “School Administrator: Dishes It Out, but Can’t Take It ” the section titled “Andrew Thompson.”

Jody Goetzman

Thompson said that he had a parent/teacher conference with newly elected board member Jody Goetzman last year in which she made a comment about the middle school: “she said one of her top priorities was to fix the mess in the middle school.”

(Goetzman was elected in November, 2007, and took office in January, 2008.)

Thompson did not know what Goetzman meant by the statement.

(Request for comment from Goetzman has been made—if and when she replies, this article will be updated with her response.)

Does a teacher have to believe in Darwinian Evolution?

One of the questions Thompson said he posed to Short was, “Do you have to be a Muslim to teach Islam?”

A teacher at the high school, who teaches a class on world religions, teaches about Islam but—as far as Thompson knew—does not follow the Islamic religion. Thompson understood the teacher to still be effective without believing in the religion he was teaching about.

Thompson explained why he brought up the subject:

“My point with that is […] there's been allegations brought up about the way Mr. Freshwater taught evolution. And my thought was, well, not knowing exactly what his feelings are about evolution, what if maybe he didn't necessarily agree with exactly word for word what the textbook said? He still taught it. Does that mean that he has to believe word for word what the textbook says in order for him to be an effective teacher?”

John Freshwater

Thompson said that Freshwater had a good attitude throughout the ordeal of the accusations and investigation:

“From the time this whole thing came out and even now, I don't see a difference in Mr. Freshwater, and the students didn't see a difference in Mr. Freshwater. I just ... It's amazing to me, the attitude. I felt that he was not condemning towards the School Board, towards Mr. Short, towards our principals.”

Superintendent Steve Short

Thompson said he considers both Freshwater and Short to be mentors and friends of his. He said his intent in talking with Short about the HROC investigation was not to attack him, but to share concerns. Thompson wanted Short to talk to the board and ask that they reinstate Freshwater.

The HROC report is dated June 19, 2008. The board voted June 20, 2008 to start the process of firing Freshwater. The board placed Freshwater on unpaid administrative leave.