Thursday, June 3, 2010

Student Was Not Burned, According To Medical Expert

The following testimony took place between 10:34 a.m.—11:21 a.m. on 6/02/10.

The parents of Zachary Dennis were concerned enough to take pictures of their son’s arm but not concerned enough to take him to the doctor. In the experience of Dr Patrick Johnston, parents who react in that way are looking to sue someone.

It wasn’t until months after the situation occurred, in which Stephen and Jennifer Dennis say their son was burned in science class, that they made a big deal out of the matter. The Dennises followed up with a lawsuit but no doctor ever saw the alleged burn.

Johnston, a family practice physician, was brought as an expert witness for the defense of eighth grade science teacher John Freshwater during Wednesday’s hearing. (The hearing is regarding whether Freshwater will be retained as a teacher and is separate from the lawsuit filed by the Dennises against Freshwater.)

(The John Freshwater hearing is taking place at the Mount Vernon Board of Education offices.)

Second-degree burn

Dr. David Levy, an expert witness brought by the school board’s attorney, previously testified that the photos of Zachary Dennis showed a “superficial second-degree burn.”

Johnston did not find it credible that Dennis had a second-degree burn. A second-degree burn caused by electricity would cause excruciating pain, Johnston said.

A student, Corbin Douglas Heck, previously testified that Dennis laughed when the spark from the Tesla coil was run across Dennis’ arm during the classroom demonstration.

Unless Dennis is a Navy Seal trained in torture techniques, there is no way he would have been able to withstand the “burning” without pulling away, Johnston said.

The fact that no other students reported being burned—Freshwater had done the demonstration throughout the years on hundreds of students as had other teachers—rules out that the mark shown in the photos was a burn, Johnston said.

An electrical burn that happened quickly would not create the skatttered spots that are depicted in the photo in addition to the lines, Johnston said.

Johnston said that Dennis probably had a skin condition.

Medical history

Knowing the medical history of the child is crucial to making a diagnosis, Johnston said. He could not make a proper determination of the cause of the marks by just looking at the photos. Johnston said that there could be a hundred explanations.

Johnston explained that some people get a reaction from friction on their skin—the marks could have even been created by a rash from running a tongue suppressor across the arm.

Johnston said that he would suspect the parents of negligence if the child had a second degree burn but they did not take the child to see a doctor.

Radio interview with Freshwater

Johnston also testified as a fact witness in addition to testifying as an expert witness.

On April 25, 2009, Johnston had interviewed Freshwater on the radio program Right Remedy that at the time Johnston hosted. School board attorney David Millstone previously played a recording of that interview in the hearing and asked Freshwater several questions about it.

Johnston testified that the “LEGO demonstration,” which was discussed in the interview, was something that he learned about before talking with Freshwater. In the research Johnston had done, he thought that Freshwater had used the LEGO bricks in class as a rebuttal to evolution.

Johnston said he found out during the interview that it was a student and not Freshwater who did the demonstration with the LEGO bricks.

Dumping LEGO bricks out on a table, Johnston said, could be evidence for or against a “starship” forming by chance. He said that it might depend on how many billions of times the LEGO bricks were dumped out onto the table.

For more information, see the affidavit of Johnston ( 531.87 KB PDF).

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Religious Display Depends On Context and Purpose

The following testimony took place between 9:11 a.m.—10:34 a.m. on 6/02/10.

The items in the classroom of John Freshwater were not part of a religious display, according to expert witness Michael Molnar.

Molnar’s conclusion was based on photos and information Freshwater’s attorney, R. Kelly Hamilton, provided to Molnar about Freshwater’s classroom. Molnar, an elementary principal for the last eight years, testified at Wednesday’s hearing.

(The John Freshwater hearing is taking place at the Mount Vernon Board of Education offices.)

Religious display

Molnar said that a thorough investigation is important in determining whether something is a religious display. If someone complained to him about items posted in a classroom, he would ask the teacher why the items were there and where the items came from.

The “George Bush/Colin Powell” poster that Freshwater had posted in the classroom could serve a patriotic purpose, Molnar said. The teacher would have no reason to think there was a problem with the poster unless notified that there was an issue with it, Molnar said.

A Bible, Koran or Torah is not a religious display in and of itself, Molnar said.

Molnar said that the book covers placed by Freshwater, for security reasons, over a window are not inherently religious because there are other quotes on the covers in addition to the Ten Commandments.

If a teacher’s room is used for the meeting place of a student organization, such as Fellowship of Christian Athletes, then it is permissible for the students to store their club items in the room, Molnar said. The areas that a student organization could post things would be determined by the school or the club’s advisor, Molnar said.

Molnar defined a religious display as one that is being used to try to proselytize.

Prompt investigation

Policies and procedures established by a school district for the investigation of complaints insure that all are treated fairly, Molnar said. Promptness is also important, Molnar said, especially when students are involved.

If an allegation is made against a teacher then the students involved should, when possible, be interviewed the same day, Molnar said.

Molnar’s response to an allegation of a student being burned—such as what the Dennis family says happened in Freshwater’s class—would be to talk with the child in question. He would find out what other witnesses were present, talk with the teacher, and determine whether the students were in any danger.

Molnar said that he would want statements obtained from witnesses and put into writing promptly in order to insure the integrity of the investigation.

Schools are required to report injuries to Children’s Services, Molnar said.

School administration

The administration should follow conversation about a directive with something in writing, Molnar said. He also said that it is the administration’s responsibility to follow guidelines, procedures and the master contract—to insure the integrity of any investigations and fairness to all staff members.

For more information, see the affidavit of Molnar ( 696.81 KB PDF).

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Religion in the Public Schools

One of the stipulations in the partial settlement reached between the Dennis family and the Mount Vernon Board of Education was that the school system was to provide training to teachers on state and church issues.

Back in August of 2009, two attorneys—David Millstone and William Steele—gave a presentation to the teachers titled “Religion in the Public Schools.” (At some point there is to be a second presentation on the issue by Melissa Rogers, director of the Center for Religion and Public Affairs at Wake Forest University Divinity School.)

(The presentation given to Mount Vernon City Schools’ teaching staff last year.)

Although the August 2009 presentation was previously reported on by the Mount Vernon News, for those interested in more details about the presentation and the viewpoints of the school district’s attorneys, the following is a copy of the computer slides used for the presentation:

(In response to a request from, Millstone provided clarification on a couple points—see copy of email (80.68 KB PDF). )

On the topic of religion in the public schools, a federal judge earlier this year handed down a strongly worded decision:

“Ironically, while teachers in the Poway Unified School District encourage students to celebrate diversity and value thinking for one’s self, Defendants apparently fear their students are incapable of dealing with diverse viewpoints that include God’s place in American history and culture.

“But to assert that because [Bradley] Johnson was a teacher, he had no First Amendment protections in his classroom for his own speech would ignore a half-century of other Supreme Court precedent.”

The decision is worth reading in its entirety:

Bradley Johnson vs. Poway Unified School District, et al. (105.13 KB PDF)