MOUNT VERNON — The contract termination hearing of suspended Mount Vernon Middle School science teacher John Freshwater resumed Tuesday morning with testimony from Dennis Turner, pastor of New Life Community Church in Fredericktown.
Turner discussed his experience as a speaker for the high school and middle school Fellowship of Christian Athletes groups. He said the difference was that no adult from the high school group contacted him, whereas Freshwater spoke with him on the phone regarding his middle school FCA invitation. Turner said Freshwater confirmed the logistics of the visit, such as meeting place and times, and said Freshwater was not present in the room when Turner spoke to the students, although a couple of other teachers were.
Turner said he did not see Freshwater interact with any students during the FCA sessions and did not observe him participating in prayer.
The key findings of the investigative report by HR on Call report by are quoted below.
Mr. Freshwater did burn a cross onto the complaining family’s child’s arm using an electrostatic device not designed for that purpose. While there did not appear to be any intent by Mr. Freshwater to cause injury to any student, he was not using the device for its intended purpose. Contrary to Mr. Freshwater’s statement he simply made an “X” not a “cross,” all of the students described the marking as a “cross” and the pictures provided depict a “cross.”
The Ten Commandments together with other posters of a religious nature were posted in Mr. Freshwater’s classroom. Most were removed after Mr. White’s letter of April 14, 2008, but at least one poster remained which Mr. Freshwater was again instructed to remove on April 16, 2008, but did not do so.
Several Bibles were kept in Mr. Freshwater’s classroom including his personal Bible on his desk and one he checked out of the library placed on the lab table near the desk. Other Bibles that had been maintained in the room were removed by the time the investigators viewed Mr. Freshwater’s room.
Mr. Freshwater engaged in teaching of a religious nature, teaching creationism and related theories and calling evolution into question. He had other materials in his classroom that could be used for that purpose.
Mr. Freshwater engaged in prayer during FCA meetings in violation of the district’s legal obligations for monitoring such organizations.
Mr. Freshwater participated and possibly led a prayer during an FCA meeting that concerned a guest speaker’s health. There is no conclusion as to whether such prayer was a “healing” prayer.
There is no evidence Mr. Freshwater violated the district’s permission slip policy.
There is no evidence Mr. Freshwater made statements about FCA members “being the saved ones” nor was there any corroboration to the allegation Mr. Freshwater gave FCA members Bibles for them to distribute. He did have two boxes of Bibles in the back of his room.
Mr. Freshwater gave an extra credit assignment for students to view the movie “Expelled” which does involve intelligent design.
Thomas Herlevi, owner of HR on Call and the principal investigator of the allegations against Freshwater, was the only witness for the remainder of the day. He described the scope of the investigation and outlined the investigative process. In addition to reviewing various documents and Freshwater’s personnel file, he testified that he talked with a number of parents, other staff members, administrators, and students, as well as Freshwater.
Asked several times whether he believed the report was fair, accurate and complete, Herlevi said yes.
“During the course of your investigation [into the allegations against Freshwater],” Freshwater attorney Kelly Hamilton asked Herlevi, “did you determine that anyone you interviewed lacked credibility?”
“Yes,” Herlevi replied.
“John Freshwater was the only one?”
Herlevi said Freshwater contradicted himself on occasion during his two-hour interview. For example, Herlevi said, Freshwater said he did not mark a student’s arm with an electrical device, then said it was an “X” and not a cross; Freshwater said he follows the FCA guidelines, then said he did pray “all the time” and contacted speakers; Freshwater said he teaches evolution, but the classroom environment, according to Herlevi, with religious items and certain handouts, was inconsistent with that assertion.
Hamilton asked how Herlevi judges a person’s credibility, and Herlevi said his decision is based on facts and the consistency of statements of the person involved and corroboration by others.
“Kids are pretty honest,” he said.
Questioned about how the people to be interviewed were chosen, and whether all of the students in a certain class should have been involved in the investigative process, Herlevi said, “I felt we talked to everybody we should have.”
Herlevi said he did not ask questions about any bias the interviewees had toward Freshwater, or their religious leanings. Herlevi also said a union representative was present when he interviewed Freshwater and other bargaining unit staff members.
Additional information provided by Herlevi’s testimony:
•HR on Call was not employed by the Mount Vernon City schools, but by the law firm Squires, Sanders & Dempsey LLP, and has investigated other school-related human resource issues.
•Freshwater’s personnel file reflected good evaluations, except for one item referring to teaching religion in class.
•Students in Freshwater’s class scored as high or higher than others on the Ohio Achievement Tests.
•There was no empirical evidence that high school teachers had to “reteach” Freshwater students.
•The Bible on the desk was not one of the Dennis family’s major concerns in its complaint.
•Herlevi did not ask Freshwater follow-up questions regarding comments by people interviewed after Freshwater’s conversation with Herlevi.
•Mount Vernon Schools Director of teaching and learning Lynda Weston and high school principal Kathy Kasler told Herlevi they felt former administrators did not follow up with concerns they raised about Freshwater’s classroom conduct.
•Former Mount Vernon School District superintendent Jeff Maley was interviewed and told Herlevi similar complaints had been going on for some time. According to Herlevi, Maley “tried to walk a fine line” between the Kenyon community and the Nazarene community. Because “everyone liked Freshwater, Maley simply directed the principal to tell Freshwater to stop [inappropriate teaching] and did not place any written documentation in Freshwater’s file.