MOUNT VERNON — On break since Oct. 31, the employment termination hearing of Mount Vernon middle school science teacher John Freshwater is scheduled to resume Tuesday. The proceedings will again be held in the conference room in the office of the Knox County Commissioners.
Freshwater, who has been suspended without pay, is contesting the school board’s decision to consider firing him for alleged professional misconduct. He maintains the board’s action is rooted in his refusal to remove a personal Bible from his desk.
The school board refutes that the Bible is the issue. It alleges Freshwater caused physical harm to a student during a science experiment, overstepped his bounds as a monitor of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, promoted particular religious beliefs in the classroom while denigrating others, and was insubordinate in refusing to follow directives from the school administration.
The controversy escalated in April 2008 when Freshwater went public with his refusal to remove his Bible from his desk, claiming First Amendment rights to free speech.
The board of education then elected to hire an independent investigator to look into the allegations against Freshwater. The investigating firm, HR on Call, forwarded its report to the board in June, and in a special meeting June 19, school board members unanimously passed a resolution declaring their intent to consider the termination of Freshwater’s teaching contract.
As permitted by board policy, Freshwater requested a hearing regarding the termination of his teaching contract, but declined to proceed with the hearing during the summer months.
An impartial hearing referee, R. Lee Shepherd, was accepted by both parties, and is presiding over the hearing, which began Oct. 2, 2008, and continued Oct. 3, and Oct. 28 through 31. Although not a judge or arbitrator, Shepherd controls the hearing process. He rules on the admissibility of evidence and testimony, and considers any motions or objections raised by the parties. Testimony is given under oath, and both parties are able to cross-examine any witnesses. After all the evidence is presented, Shepherd will submit a written report to the board with a recommendation whether to terminate Freshwater’s contract.
The first two days of the proceedings consisted of motions by Freshwater’s attorney Kelly Hamilton and testimony by Mount Vernon school superintendent Steve Short.
Middle School principal Bill White was called as a witness, as were Mount Vernon High School principal Kathy Kasler, teachers Katie Beach, Kerri Mahan, Bonnie Schutte and Richard Cunningham. Dr. David Levy, chairman of the department of emergency medicine at the St. Elizabeth Health Center in Youngstown, was questioned as to the medcial aspects of the controversy, and several former students of Freshwater talked about their experiences in his classroom. They included Simon Souhrada, Kate Button and Zach Dennis.