Wednesday, June 1, 2011

EXCLUSIVE: Witness impeached by school records

James Stockdale was the lone witness for at least one of the ten reasons the Mount Vernon Board of Education gave for firing John Freshwater. According to school records, Stockdale’s substitute teaching duties never took him into Freshwater’s classroom during the time period Stockdale claimed to have heard Freshwater make remarks about homosexuality.

Stockdale testified in 2009, during the state administrative hearing, that he substitute taught for intervention specialist Kerri Mahan in the fall of 2006. This assignment, Stockdale said, led him to spend one period in Freshwater’s classroom accompanying special education students.

Stockdale said that during that period Freshwater taught his eighth-grade science class both that homosexuality is a sin and that scientists are wrong for saying homosexuality is partially genetic:

“[Freshwater said] that oftentimes scientists and information in textbooks are incorrect and he wanted to give an example of that. And the example he gave was that several years ago an article in Time magazine stated that scientists had found a genetic link to homosexuality and that scientists in the article were wrong because the Bible states that homosexuality is a sin, so anyone who chooses to be a homosexual is a sinner; and that, therefore, science can be wrong, scientists can be wrong. And then he applied that to thinking that the material in the textbook in that particular unit could be incorrect.”

Stockdale, however, did not report the alleged incident until after Freshwater was told to remove the Bible from off his desk in the spring of 2008.

Hearing referee R. Lee Shepherd, in his report, characterized the incident Stockdale described as being “Perhaps the most egregious example of John Freshwater’s ‘failure to adhere to established curriculum.’”

During the hearing, Freshwater testified that he never made the statement that Stockdale credited to him. Freshwater said that Stockdale may have overheard a conversation he had with other teachers regarding the Time magazine article about the gay gene.

Neither Shepherd in his report nor the school board in its resolution provided an explanation for why they chose to believe the testimony of Stockdale over that of Freshwater.

The records obtained by show that Stockdale never substitute taught for Mahan Sept. 1, 2005 through June 30, 2008.

In the written statement that Stockdale provided to the school during the H.R. On Call Investigation, Stockdale said:

“When this matter became public and removing the Bible from Mr. Freshwater’s classroom appeared to be the sole issue, I knew differently. Over the next few days, the question of whether or not John was proselytizing in his classroom was raised. I know for a fact that he was preaching.”

Freshwater has appealed the decision of the school board. In the appeal filed in February with the Knox County Court of Common Pleas, Freshwater addressed Stockdale’s allegation:

“Freshwater does not argue for his right to have said this; Freshwater denies saying this. Stockdale has no corroboration from students, or from parents, or from administration, no contemporary documentation, did not speak to anyone at the time, admits he does not have exact recollection of the things that happened that particular day, and at the time of the investigation he could not even remember what year this supposedly occurred. Yet, Stockdale is very specific in ‘recalling’ exactly what Freshwater said to his students. Without corroboration, it is IRRATIONAL to conclude that his testimony is true.”


Stockdale’s MVCS attendance report. 186 KB. PDF.

Stockdale’s letter. 126 KB. PDF.

Closing arguments.

Shepherd’s report and recommendation. 41 KB. PDF.

MVBOE termination resolution. 633 KB. PDF

Freshwater’s appeal. 3.25 MB. PDF

See the articles in the archive for additional coverage of the Freshwater controversy.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Ohio Department of Education tries to revive Tesla coil issue

The Ohio Department of Education sent a “Letter of Admonishment” to John Freshwater that claims Freshwater “engaged in conduct unbecoming to the teaching profession.” The only issue raised in the letter is the previously adjudicated issue involving the Tesla coil.

Without citing any evidence or sources, the ODE asserted that Freshwater’s use of the Tesla coil “resulted in an injury to a student.”

The referee who oversaw Freshwater’s state administrative hearing, R. Lee Shepherd, stated about the allegation of a student being injured:

“Due to the sensational and provocative nature of this specified ground, it and the facts and circumstances surrounding it became the focus of the curious, including those in the video, audio, and print media. Once sworn testimony was presented, it [became] obvious that speculation and imagination had pushed reality aside.”

As previously reported by KnoxPages editor Adam Taylor, Freshwater’s attorney R. Kelly Hamilton has sent a response to the ODE demanding that the letter be rescinded.

“Freshwater herein demands,” the response states, “the Ohio Department of Education’s letter of Admonishment be immediately rescinded as the allegations relied upon in the letter are false, erroneous, defamatory and unwarranted and subject to legal action.”

Hamilton cited ODE own rules which bar the department from issuing the admonishment due to the matter having been already resolved.

Hamilton further requested, if the letter is not rescinded, that an investigation be opened immediately into the conduct of Mount Vernon City Schools superintendent Steve Short and middle school principal Bill White.

Short and White did not report the alleged injury to Children Services. Hamilton said Short and White failed to comply with Ohio’s mandatory reporting requirement.

Hamilton also requested that the ODE investigate the other teachers who also allowed students to touch the spark from the Tesla coil:

“The essence of the Ohio Department of Education’s Letter of Admonishment is that educators should be disciplined for an alleged, now known to be false accusation of harm, despite having followed on-the-job-training procedures and making use of a Tesla coil in the exact same manner as colleagues with a pattern of conduct that had proven reliable and safe for over 20 years.”

Related documents:

Letter of Admonishment, dated March 22, 2011. 1 MB PDF.

Response to Letter of Admonishment, dated April 20, 2011. 766 KB PDF.

UPDATE: 5-23-2011:

The Mount Vernon News reported Friday that Stephen and Jenifer Dennis, through their attorney, submitted a request to the ODE asking that the letter of reprimand remain in Freshwater’s file and that Freshwater's teaching license be revoked.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Press release: Rutherford Institute defends Christian teacher fired for urging public school students to think critically about evolution

The following press release was provided today by The Rutherford Institute:

MOUNT VERNON, Ohio— The Rutherford Institute is defending a Christian teacher who was allegedly fired for keeping religious articles in his classroom and for using teaching methods that encourage public school students to think critically about the school's science curriculum, particularly as it relates to evolution theories. John Freshwater, a 24-year veteran in the classroom, was suspended by the Mount Vernon City School District Board of Education in 2008 and officially terminated in January 2011. The School Board's resolution claims that Freshwater improperly injected religion into the classroom by giving students "reason to doubt the accuracy and or veracity of scientists, science textbooks and/or science in general." The Board also claims that he failed to remove "all religious articles" from his classroom, including a Bible.

"The right of public school teachers to academic freedom is the bedrock of American education," stated John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. "What we need today are more teachers and school administrators who understand that young people don't need to be indoctrinated. Rather, they need to be taught how to think for themselves."

Throughout his 21-year teaching career at Mount Vernon Middle School, John Freshwater never received a negative performance evaluation. As one reporter noted, "In his evaluations through the 21 years he's worked for the district, Freshwater has drawn consistent praise for his strong rapport with students, broad knowledge of his subject matter and engaging teaching style." In fact, during the 2007-2008 school year, Freshwater's students earned the highest state standardized test scores in science of any eighth grade class in the district. Moreover, according to a federal judge's findings, Freshwater was the only science teacher at Mount Vernon Middle School who achieved a "passing" score on the Ohio Achievement Test.

However, in June 2008, the Board of Education voted to fire Freshwater, a Christian, citing concerns about his conduct and teaching materials, particularly as they related to the teaching of evolution. Earlier that year, school officials reportedly ordered Freshwater, who had served as the faculty appointed facilitator, monitor, and supervisor of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes student group for 16 of the 20 years that he taught at Mount Vernon, to remove "all religious items" from his classroom, including a Ten Commandments poster displayed on the door of his classroom, posters with Bible verses, and his personal Bible which he kept on his desk. Freshwater agreed to remove all items except for his Bible. Showing their support for Freshwater, students even organized a rally in his honor. They also wore t-shirts with crosses painted on them to school and carried Bibles to class.

School officials were seemingly unswayed by the outpouring of support for Freshwater. In fact, despite the fact that the Board's own policy states that because religious traditions vary in their treatment of science, teachers should give unbiased instruction so that students may evaluate it "in accordance with their own religious tenets," school officials suspended and eventually fired Freshwater, allegedly for criticizing evolution and failing to teach the required science curriculum.

With the help of The Rutherford Institute, Freshwater is appealing his termination in state court, asserting that the school's actions violated his rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution and constituted religious discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.