Wednesday, June 23, 2010

BIBLE ON THE DESK: Freshwater Hearing Comes Full Circle with Last Witness

The following testimony took place 9:17 a.m.—2:48 p.m. on 6/22/10.

The last day of testimony brought the John Freshwater hearing, which has spanned 21 months, back to where it started: Steve Short testifying about the order for Freshwater to remove his personal Bible from off his desk.

Bible on the desk

When Short—who is the superintendent of the Mount Vernon City Schools—testified at the opening of the hearing, in October of 2008, he said that one of the reasons that he had recommend firing Freshwater was because of Freshwater’s refusal to remove the Bible.

During that previous testimony, Short explained that there were many items within Freshwater’s classroom that could be considered religious. Because of this, Short said that it created a religious display. “It was difficult to determine what was and wasn’t on display,” Short said. “So everything should have been put away.”

Also during the 2008 testimony, Freshwater’s attorney, R. Kelly Hamilton, asked Short how he handled the similar situation in which teacher Lori Miller had both a Bible on her desk and potentially religious items in the classroom.

“We told [Miller] to remove all the other items that she had,” Short replied.

The Bible remained on Miller’s desk.

When Short testified during Tuesday’s hearing, he changed the focus of his argument.

Short said that the difference between Miller and Freshwater is that the Dennis family complained that Freshwater referenced his Bible during class.

Short acknowledged that the Dennis family was the only family that made such a complaint to him.

In fact, the other students in the class with Zachary Dennis have stated that Freshwater did not talk about religion in his class. (For more information, see the article, “Student Testimony—John Freshwater Addresses School Board.” )

Short also acknowledged that while he did ask Miller if her Bible was part of the “display” in her classroom, he did not ask Freshwater a similar clarifying question.

During Short’s meeting with Miller, Short advised Miller that if she disagreed with the directive to remove the items from her classroom, she could use the union process to grieve the order. Short said that he did not tell Freshwater, who is not a member of the union, of his right to use the union’s grievance process.

Short’s religious display

Hamilton asked Short if he previously had a religious item hanging on the wall in his own office.

Short replied that he hadn't

Hamilton then asked Short if he had in his office a poster created by his son with “World’s Greatest Dad” written across it and at the bottom Romans 12:6.

Short replied that he used to have that poster in his office and that it was a “religious display” but that it was never “hanging” on the wall.

It was following a meeting with Hamilton in July of 2008 that Short removed the poster. Short said that he noticed Hamilton walking around the office and looking at the items in the room. He said that fifteen minutes after the meeting he removed the poster.

Short acknowledged that at the meeting Hamilton did not make any complaint about the poster being a religious display.

Chain of evidence issues

Short addressed issues raised by Freshwater regarding how the items from his classroom were stored and why some of the items in storage were already labeled as board exhibits.

The materials from Freshwater’s classroom were moved into storage in August of 2008, Short said. He said the first storage site used was the director of business office—after about 20 to 30 days, the items were again moved, this time to a room on an upper floor of the central offices that used to be a women’s bathroom.

Short said the only time that anyone had access to the stored items, other than himself, was when the items were stored in the director of business office. The janitor had a key but was instructed to not enter the room, Short said.

The boxes were not numbered until there was a “plethora of attorneys” sorting through the materials and requesting copies, Short said. He explained that the numbers were added so that the items could get back in the right boxes.

Two of the boxes ended up falling apart and so were replaced with new boxes, Short said. These were the two boxes that had handwritten dates that preceded the packing label dates.

Regarding school board exhibit number 22, Short said a printout of the email was found among Freshwater’s items. Short explained that after school board attorney David Millstone three-hole punched the document they realized a copy should be included with the stored items.

Regarding school board exhibit number 91, Short said the situation was the same as for number 22 except that he was able to stop Millstone before he three-hole punched the document.

Regarding OAT grade sheets that were found in storage, Short said that a custodian probably included some of Freshwater’s mail in with the stuff that was moved to storage.

Inventory of Freshwater’s personal items

Short said that in August of 2008 Freshwater called him and requested the return of his belongings. Following the call, Short said he talked with council and that the instructions he was given was to make a list of all the items that he was giving back to Freshwater.

The one-sheet handwritten inventory Short said he made was entered as school board exhibit number 115. The list included items such as “clock radio,” “parachute,” “volcanoes book,” “t-shirts” and four Bibles.

Short then compared the inventory to photos supplied, apparently, by Freshwater of the personal items that Freshwater says were returned. Short said that some items included in the inventory are not in the photos and that there are some items in the photos that are not in the inventory.

Hamilton asked Short why this handwritten inventory was not provided in response to his public records requests.

Short replied that he does not believe that it is a public records document. He said his understanding is that it is protected under the work product doctrine.

Upon further questioning from Hamilton, Short agreed that he is no longer trying to protect the document from discloser.

Although Short considered the document to be protected under the work product doctrine, the Dennis family already had a copy of it by May 14, 2010 when they used it as an exhibit for one of their motions in their federal lawsuit against Freshwater. (Click here to view copy of the inventory. 81.51 KB PDF).

Short said that he has no knowledge of when the inventory sheet was given to the Dennis’ attorney Douglas Mansfield.

Additional statements by Short:

• Items not placed in a teachers personnel file can still be used later in evaluating the teacher. (Editor’s note: The master contract in effect at the time Freshwater was suspended stated the following: “The official personnel files of all teachers shall contain, if available, the following items: […] Appropriate letters of commendation or reprimand issued to the teacher by supervisors.”)

• Believes that Freshwater told him that he both handed out Bibles to students and talked about the meaning of Easter in class. (Editor’s note: When Short testified in 2008 he stated the following: “[Freshwater] said that maybe he’d given them [the Bibles] to some of the FCA kids if they forgot theirs when they came.” “[W]hat he talked about was Easter in relationship to the stars and astronomy where the different religious states were and fit in with the stars. […] Freshwater couldn’t remember if he brought it up or the students brought it up, but he said I may have spent one or two minutes talking about Easter and […] what it means to Christians.” Emphasis added.)

• Miller was at the meeting in which Freshwater addressed the issue of the Bibles and Easter. Does not know what would be in Miller’s notes of the meeting.

• Did search through the school buildings looking for the items identified in the first anonymous letter. Was not trying to hide materials.

• Does not have knowledge of the Dennis’ attorney taking items belonging to Freshwater. Considers it hard for it to be possible that the Dennises obtained information from Freshwater’s classroom that has not appeared at the hearing.

• A display becomes a religious display if someone perceives it as such.

• There is no definition of “religious display” in the school’s written policy.

• On August 7, 2009 individual school board members made the following comments related to evaluating his performance: Gives few updates regarding the Freshwater case. Does not always have good record keeping. Needs to have better control over the attorney. The school is in deficit spending mode.

• The school board gave him a rating of “1.7.” This rating falls between the categories of “needs improvement” and “satisfactory.”

• Believes that he did a good job related to his investigation of Freshwater.

The conclusion of testimony

Of the over 90 witnesses that testified during the course of the hearing, Short was both the first and the last witness.

The referee, R. Lee Shepherd, said that there has been a vast amount of information presented during the hearing. He said that the attorneys wisely agreed to do their closing arguments in writing.

Both sides have until July 26 to submit their briefs and until August 2 to submit a reply to their opponent’s brief.

Both sides agreed to have all exhibits entered as evidence and allow Shepherd, as the trier of fact, to decide what weight to give each exhibit.

Shepherd said that within ten days of reaching a decision, on what his recommendation will be, he will provide a written report to the Mount Vernon Board of Education.

The school board will make the final decision.

Shepherd concluded the day by thanking those that have been involved, most importantly, he said, Joan C. O'Donnell, the court reporter.

Shepherd thanked the attorneys for their professional conduct during the hearing. He said that he has not seen anything like it before from “both sides of the hall.”

His final comment was to the gallery. He thanked the people for wanting to stay the course and for having patience during all of the stops and starts of the hearing.

For additional coverage of the Freshwater hearing, see the articles in the archive.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

School Board’s Expert Witness: Debating Is for Politics, Not Science

The following testimonies took place 10:09 a.m—11:15 a.m. and 2:25 p.m.—4:52 p.m. on 6/08/10.

Allowing eighth-grade students to debate would give them the wrong impression of how science works, Patricia Princehouse said. Debating, she said, is used in politics but is not used in science.

Mount Vernon Middle School teacher John Freshwater did allow one of his science classes in 2007-2008 to debate creationism and evolution. Freshwater previously testified that debating was something his students wanted to do and that his involvement was only instructing them to research their position, giving them a few rules and supervising the debate to keep it civil.

Princehouse and another expert witness were brought by Mount Vernon Board of Education attorney David Millstone to testify about whether debating is appropriate and to interpret both Freshwater’s 2003 proposal “Objective Origins Science Policy” and his teaching materials.

Patricia Princehouse


Princehouse teaches at Case Western Reserve University. Although she is not included on the list of faculty within the biology department, she is listed as a “Lecturer in Philosophy” in the department of history and philosophy of science. 

In addition to her work at the university, Princehouse is active in promoting evolution in the public sector. She serves on the board of Ohio Citizens for Science which she helped found.

(Princehouse is a signatory of the National Center for Science Education’s “Statement of Concern” regarding the Answers in Genesis’s creation museum. Highlighting added.)

Princehouse’s website includes the following description of her activities: “Believing firmly that academics must not isolate themselves from the public square, Princehouse has become a major voice in the struggle to secure the integrity of science education in America's public schools.”


Princehouse said the debate format is not appropriate for the science classroom. Even at the college level, debate skills would not come naturally to all students and the students would become bogged down trying to learn those particular skills, Princehouse said.

(The NCSE provides helpful advice to aspiring Darwinists—don’t debate creationists. Highlighting added.)

Instead of debating, scientists discuss things and do testing, Princehouse said. She gave the example of scientists looking to see whether particular fossils could be found where they were expected. She said that if the results do not support the hypothesis then the scientists correct their idea and test it again.

Freshwater’s 2003 proposal

Princehouse said Freshwater’s 2003 proposal to the school board was “very cleverly worded.” Although it was clever, she was able to determine that the proposal was to teach creationism.

The clues that Princehouse was able to use to deduce what Freshwater was really up to included his use of terms such as “critically analyze.”

After Princehouse reviewed the Science Curriculum Committee’s written response to the proposal—which said that the proposal was both illegal and addressed by school board policy regarding controversial issues—she said that there are issues in the proposal that are legitimate but that the proposal also brings in things that are not.

The only thing in Freshwater’s proposal that comes close to inclusion of creationism or intelligent design is this statement: “understand the full range of scientific views that exist regarding the origins of life and its diversity, and understand why origins science may generate controversy.”

The language of the proposal contained no statement that creationism was part of “the full range of scientific views.” For Princehouse to come to the conclusion that the proposal was to teach creationism, she first had to accept creationism as science. However, in her testimony she stated that creationism was religion and not science.

(Bertrand Russell helps explain Princehouse.)

The department of philosophy at CWRU has the following quote by Bertrand Russell on its website: “The point of philosophy is to start with something so simple as not to seem worth stating, and to end with something so paradoxical that no one will believe it.”

Teaching materials

Princehouse said that the terms “specified complexity” and “irreducible complexity,” which were included in one of Freshwater’s lesson plans, are terms used in ID.

Freshwater’s attorney, R. Kelly Hamilton, asked Princehouse whether she would expect an evaluation of the lesson plan, by two teachers, to include a comment on the inclusion of the terms. Princehouse said that the teachers might not be familiar with “creationist labels.”

The lesson plan was made about four months after the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover decision that dealt with ID.

Princehouse said that it could happen that a student would bring up the topic of the court case in class. She added that a teacher shouldn’t include the topic in the lesson plan even if a student previously asked about it in class. Her reasoning was that the discussion of current events belonged more in a social studies class.

Test scores

Princehouse said that she has issues with the grading standards in Ohio. The state is lowering the bar further and further to the point that a student could do well on the Ohio Achievement Test and yet not know very much, Princehouse said.

The OAT results for Freshwater’s five classes during 2007-2008 came to an average of 415.2. (The state average was 407 and the school average was 413.)

Princehouse said that it is not Freshwater’s fault that the bar was lowered.

Although Princehouse said the test is not the best method to know how well the students perform, she acknowledged that it is the method used. She added that it is very hard to measure what student’s have learned.

Teacher’s ownership of books

Princehouse said that the possession of books on the topic of ID does not mean that the person teaches ID in class. She said that she also has books such as Icons of Evolution by Jonathan Wells.

Steve Rissing


Steve Rissing teaches at Ohio State University. He is a professor in the department of evolution, ecology and organismal biology.

When the Ohio academic content standards were revised, Rissing served on the advisory committee.

Rissing serves on the board of OCS and is a signatory of the NCSE’s “Statement of Concern” regarding the AIG museum.

Rissing said that he does know Richard Hoppe, who has been writing about the Freshwater hearing on, but that he has been avoiding reading Hoppe’s writings. Rissing said that he has worked with Hoppe on several projects.

(Hoppe is also a signatory of the NCSE’s “Statement of Concern.” Although Hoppe is not listed as being on the board of OCS, he is one of three contact people listed at the end of the OCS article “Creationist Pseudo-Museum Displays to Mislead Students.” )

Rissing said that during the last few weeks he did talk with Princehouse three or four times about coming to the Freshwater hearing. (Princehouse stayed after her testimony and joined the gallery to listen to Rissing.)

Hamilton asked Rissing if he was involved in Bryan Leonard’s doctorate evaluation. Rissing said that he knows Leonard but that he was not involved. (For more information on this controversy, see the article by Jerry Bergman, “The Strange Case of Steve Rissing.” 35.20 KB PDF )

Hamilton also asked Rissing if he had in any manner protested in front of the AIG museum. Rissing answered that he had not.


Using debate in science class is bad “pedagogy,” Rissing said. He went on to explain that “science is not a debate” but instead “science is a discussion.”

Rissing said that debate has a connotation of an athletic event in that there are winners and losers. He said he never does science that way.

Test scores

Rissing said he knows there is an OAT and that while he doesn’t know a lot about the test he imagines that a test called that would be intended to assess whether the students have “achieved” the standards. He said students would achieve proficient on the OAT if they were being taught the standards.

The method of teaching that Rissing said he uses is an “inquiry” approach instead of just directing the students in how to do projects and giving them rote memorization tasks such as fill-in-the-blank worksheets.

Rissing said that the state standards mention not memorizing terms.

Rissing did agree that different students require different methods of instructions.

Teaching materials

One of the standards for the eighth-grade states: “Explain why it is important to examine data objectively and not let bias affect observations.”

Freshwater previously testified that up until 2003 he used some worksheets called the “giraffe and woodpecker,” which were created by a former student, to show examples of improper use of the scientific method. (Click here for copy of the woodpecker worksheet. 137.77 KB PDF.)

Rissing said that using these worksheets to discuss the issue of bias with students would not be a proper way to teach the standard. What the writers of the standard had in mind regarding bias, Rissing said, was the issue of someone dismissing an explanation because of a preconceived notion.

Rissing did some research and found what he believes served as the basis of the two worksheets—The Evolution of a Creationist by Jobe Martin. Rissing said that the sections in the book about the giraffe and woodpecker are “great” and that “we can do that in the U.S.” He has students that believe in a creator but, he said, a teacher should not be asking questions about that.

Inside Rissing’s classroom

As it turns out, Rissing does incorporate discussion of religion into the biology classes he teaches at the college level. He even uses material developed by his students to facilitate that discussion.

Rissing said that he put together, from student research, a chart about diseases that contrasts 14th century beliefs and responses with that of the modern understanding about those diseases.

The column with the 14th century explanations for diseases includes “Devil,” “God,” “Sin,” “Hand of God” and “God’s wrath.”

Rissing explained that one of the learning objectives that he is following with this chart is discussing the history of science.

At the bottom of the chart, Rissing labeled the 14th century beliefs as “non-scientific” and the modern understanding as “scientific.”

When Rissing teaches the class, he said he cuts up the information from the chart and gives it to the students to discuss in groups. The students compare notes and talk about the differences between the columns. He said that it is appropriate for students to compare information that is scientific to that which is non-scientific.

Rissing, who happens to write a column on biology for The Columbus Dispatch, said that it is acceptable for teachers to discuss current events in class.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

School Board Witness Says She ‘Heckled’ John Freshwater

The following testimonies took place 9:09 a.m.—9:33 a.m. and 11:33 a.m.—11:50 a.m. on 6/08/10.

The witness, Marcia Orsborn, said that she “heckled” John Freshwater about the need to bring a Catholic priest to speak at the school’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

Mount Vernon Board of Education attorney David Millstone brought Orsborn and another witness to the hearing to testify about Freshwater’s involvement in FCA and to testify about an alleged statement made by Freshwater about Catholics.

A previous school board witness, Simon Souhrada, testified that he overheard part of a conversation in which he believed that Freshwater said “Catholics aren't Christians.”

Marcia Orsborn

Orsborn, a teacher at Mount Vernon Middle School for the past 29 years, said that her relationship with Freshwater was one in which they both engaged in “good natured teasing.”

Someone told her that Freshwater did not like Catholics, to which she said her reply was that she had no reason to believe that. The complaint did get her to thinking about who the speakers at FCA had been and that none of them had been from her church, St. Vincent de Paul.

Orsborn said that she went and asked Freshwater, one of the club’s monitors, why he had not brought a Catholic speaker to FCA. Freshwater’s response, according to her, was that he would have to check his Bible. Orsborn then asked him what his Bible would say about that. Freshwater replied that he wasn’t sure that she was a Christian, Orsborn said.

After Freshwater’s reply, Orsborn said that she made the “L” loser sign with her hand and said, “Whatever, John.”

As time went by, she kept, in her words, “heckling” Freshwater about having a Catholic speak at FCA. Eventually, she said, Freshwater told her to go ahead and contact a priest about speaking.

Orsborn said she called the church and spoke with Father Mark Hammond’s secretary Shirley Lower. When Hammond did end up speaking at FCA, she said that she didn’t attend the meeting but that she did go to the room and thank him for coming.

Freshwater’s attorney, R. Kelly Hamilton, showed Orsborn a speaker request form filled out by a couple of students regarding having Hammond speak at FCA. Orsborn said that she doesn’t know what transpired after her initial call to the church and that she has no reason to dispute that the students sent an invitation to Hammond.

Orsborn said that she did not do any research into how FCA was run but that she assumed Freshwater was responsible for the speakers. (Teachers that monitor FCA are supposed to leave the inviting of speakers to the students.)

Hamilton asked Orsborn several questions about her knowledge of Freshwater and his family’s interaction with Catholics.

Orsborn said that she did not know that Freshwater’s daughter Jordon had dated someone from her church. She did not know that Freshwater transported someone to her church that needed a ride. She also did not know that Freshwater’s son Luke went to a Catholic college.

Freshwater never talked about his church background but Orsborn said that she knew where he attended because she taught Freshwater’s three children.

Orsborn said that Freshwater never made the statement “Catholics aren’t Christens.”

According to Orsborn, the Dennis family—who brought the primary complaints against Freshwater that resulted in the hearing—also attends St. Vincent de Paul.

Father Mark Hammond

Hammond said that to the best of his recollection it was Freshwater who asked him to speak at FCA. He did not recall Orsborn or any students talking with him about coming to FCA.

Hammond admitted that his recall of the events is not good.

Although he schedules his own calendar, Hammond said it was possible that someone contacted one of his secretaries.

Hammond said that Freshwater either called him or approached him at a banquette that was held for Care Net Pregnancy Services. He did not recall whether Freshwater’s pastor, Don Matolyak, introduced him to Freshwater.

No one told him what to say at FCA, Hammond said, but he believed that he was there to share about the Catholic faith. He said that when he spoke he tried to clear up misunderstandings about Catholicism and help the students understand that Catholics believe many of the same things as Protestants.

Hammond said that of the three sessions he held at FCA, Freshwater only attended one. Hammond said that he was the one that prayed and that he does not recall Freshwater praying at the meeting.