Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Press release: Rutherford Institute defends academic freedom of teacher fired for urging students to think critically about evolution

The following press release was provided by The Rutherford Institute:

MOUNT VERNON, Ohio—In oral arguments before the Ohio Supreme Court on Wednesday, February 27, The Rutherford Institute will defend the right to academic freedom of a science teacher fired for encouraging students to think critically about the school’s science curriculum, particularly as it relates to evolution theories. In coming to veteran science teacher John Freshwater’s defense, Institute attorneys argue that the Mount Vernon City School District violated John Freshwater’s academic freedom rights—and those of his students—by firing him in January 2011. The Institute argues that where a teacher’s speech is in compliance with all Board policies and directly relates to the prescribed curriculum, the school should not be permitted to terminate the teacher’s employment as a means of censoring a particular academic viewpoint from the classroom.

“Academic freedom was once the bedrock of American education. That is no longer the state of affairs, as this case makes clear,” 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. By firing John Freshwater for challenging his students to think outside the box, school officials violated a core First Amendment freedom—the right to debate and express ideas contrary to established views.”

In June 2008, the Mount Vernon City School District Board of Education voted to suspend John Freshwater, a Christian with a 20-year teaching career at Mount Vernon Middle School, 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 using unapproved materials to facilitate classroom discussion of origins of life theories. Freshwater appealed the 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 hostility toward religion. A Common Pleas judge upheld the School Board’s decision, as did the Fifth District Court of Appeals, without analyzing these constitutional claims.

In appealing to the Ohio Supreme Court, Institute attorneys argue that the Board through its actions violated the First Amendment academic freedom rights of both Freshwater and his students. The Board attempted to have the Ohio Supreme Court strike the First Amendment claims from the lawsuit, but was unsuccessful.

Additional information

Press release from Ohio Supreme Court's Office of Public Information: Did Public School Teacher’s Firing for Presenting Religious Doctrine In Science Class Violate His Free Speech Rights?

Friday, January 18, 2013

A thank-you to readers

Four years ago was launched to respond to inaccuracies in the media’s coverage of the John Freshwater and Mount Vernon Board of Education controversy.

During the intervening years, I’ve striven to provide alternative news coverage of the ongoing story. 

To all of my readers, thank you for your interest in this project. 

I’ve had the opportunity to meet some of you. I appreciate the encouragement and thanks that you have offered.

Recently, I’ve obtained a job that requires moving out of the country. This change combined with pursuing other writing projects means that I will no longer be providing in-depth coverage of the Freshwater controversy.

I will, however, like many of you, continue to follow the story as the case continues its way through the court system.


Sam Stickle

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

MVCS superintendent to retire in June

During Monday’s meeting, the Mount Vernon Board of Education approved the retirement of Steve Short, superintendent of schools, effective June 30, 2013.

In a Jan. 11 letter to the board, Short cited changes in the state retirement system as influencing his decision to retire this year:
Dear Members of the Board of Education,
This is a community that is special to me. We have great staffs, students and administrators. It has been a pleasure to work in this District for 29 of my 31 years in education. 
The change of the State Teachers’ Retirement System benefit packages have impacted my decision on when to retire. I will be retiring effective at the end of the day on June 30, 2013. 
Thank you for your support and encouragement. 
Stephen J. Short
According to a Mount Vernon News article, Short’s current salary is $122,000 per year. His retirement will come a year before his contract was set to expire.

Short became superintendent in January 2008. Prior to that, he served a brief period as interim superintendent. He also served in other positions with the district.

The board’s 2009, 2010 and 2011 written evaluations of Short’s performance as superintendent show mostly positive remarks and ratings.

A notable exception had to do with personnel management. In the 2010 performance review, four out of five board members rated Short as needing improvement in the category of maintaining “high, clear and fair standards of performance for all personnel.” 

One board member commented in the review: “I believe Steve, as a person, wants to be fair and consistent. However, the system for which he is responsible lacks consistency, thoroughness, and timeliness.”

The review cited the “handling of John Freshwater and recent administrators’ performance” as “evidence of weakness in this area.”

Short’s retirement was first announced by the district in a Dec. 20 press release. Both the News and ran the press release as a news story that same day.

In the press release, Dr. Margie Bennett, president of the board, expressed her appreciation for Short’s years of service with the district:

“We are deeply saddened by Mr. Short’s decision to retire. He has always been a strong proponent of this community and deeply cares about our students and employees. I have the greatest respect for Mr. Short; his decisions evidence wisdom and compassion. He will be sorely missed.”

Additional information:

Press release: Mount Vernon City Schools Superintendent Steve Short to Retire (PDF)

Jan. 11, 2013 letter from Short to board (PDF)

2009 performance evaluation of Short (PDF)

2010 performance evaluation of Short (PDF)

2011 performance evaluation of Short (PDF)