MOUNT VERNON — The John Freshwater contract termination hearing on Friday began with legal wrangling. First, Freshwater’s attorney, Kelly Hamilton, called James Baroth to the witness chair. He was planning to have Baroth testify as to an affidavit filed by Baroth’s daughter, Melanie Dobson, who resides in Oregon and could not be present at the hearing.
David Millstone, the school board’s lawyer, objected to Baroth as a witness. When the hearing began last fall, Hamilton stipulated that any potential witnesses be sequestered and not be permitted to observe the hearing proceedings. Baroth has been regularly attending the sessions, thus Millstone’s objection.
Hearing referee R. Lee Shepherd sustained Millstone’s objection, and said he would make a ruling as to the admissibility of Dobson’s affidavit at a later date.
Hamilton then brought in Karl Heck, the guardian of Corbin Heck, a student who had also completed an affidavit. Hamilton said he wanted Heck to answer questions establishing the authenticity and veracity of Corbin’s statement. Millstone objected, saying that having the adult speak regarding the student’s affidavit would be hearsay evidence and was not permissible.
Hamilton had insisted in October 2008 that the identity of Millstone’s student witnesses be revealed. However, Hamilton said Friday that Freshwater did not want to make students testify in public. That, he said, is why affidavits from Corbin and other students were obtained, with parents available to testify in their stead.
Shepherd would not allow Karl Heck to testify, and said it was necessary to have Corbin speak for himself. He recessed the hearing until the students could arrive from school.
Corbin Heck was the first student witness. He said he was in Freshwater’s eighth-grade science class last year, and took part in the Tesla coil activity. Heck said he felt a “brief tickle” when the device touched his right forearm, and developed only a faint pinkish line on his arm as a result. He said the mark was an X about the size of a quarter or half dollar coin.
Heck also testified that he “sort of laughed” when he first saw the photos of the alleged Tesla coil injury on Zach Dennis’ arm.
“This is more dramatic than what I saw on anybody else’s arm,” he said, “and I didn’t see it on Zach’s arm [at the time].” He further said that Zach laughed when the coil was applied to his [Zach’s] arm.
At Hamilton’s request, Heck talked about his experiences as a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and of Freshwater’s role in FCA. Heck said Freshwater usually sat in the back of the room and stayed there.
Regarding the allegations that Freshwater taught particular religious beliefs in science class, Heck said he did not.
“I would have known if he was teaching from the Bible because I’m a Christian myself,” said Heck.
Asked to characterize Freshwater, Heck said, “I thought he was the best science teacher I ever had.”
Millstone’s cross-examination started out with a reference to allegations that Freshwater inappropriately taught students to use the word “here” to represent something that should not be stated as fact, such as results of radiometric dating.
Heck responded that he and other students in Freshwater’s class would sometimes use the term “here” to refer to something in the science textbook that was not “right on,” with something meaning the age of rocks, for instance, that was stated as fact in the text but weren’t really facts.
Nathan Thomas was the next student called by Hamilton. He said he wanted to let people know that previously reported testimony by science teacher Bill Oxenford was wrong. Thomas said Oxenford’s statement that he quit using the Tesla coil about 10 years ago was false. Thomas testified that Oxenford used the Tesla coil when Thomas was in his seventh-grade science class three years ago.
Thomas also said that when he was in Freshwater’s eighth-grade science class he saw or heard no indication that anyone was being harmed by use of the Tesla coil in the class.
Cross-examination by Millstone brought out that Thomas attends Freshwater’s church and that “Mr. Freshwater would present both sides of a topic.” Referring specifically to evolution, Thomas explained that Freshwater would tell students that some people believe there is a God who created the earth. Thomas also testified that the word “here” would be used in class to refer to things in the textbook, like relative dating, that was not accurate.
On redirect by Hamilton, Thomas, who had Freshwater as a Sunday school teacher in the fourth and fifth grades, said he taught differently in classes at the middle school than in Sunday school.
Riley Swanson was the final witness of the day. He was in Freshwater’s science class last year, but had no recollection of using a Tesla coil in class or of anyone complaining about it.
“I can’t believe [Freshwater] would intentionally hurt anybody. He has good intentions,” said Swanson.
Swanson said he is a friend of Zach Dennis, who never said anything to him about being uncomfortable in Freshwater’s class.
Regarding religion, Swanson said Freshwater was usually at his desk during FCA leadership meetings and two students led the FCA proceedings. He said he did recall seeing Will Graham campaign fliers in the classroom, but had no memory of a discussion about Easter other than “it’s the first full moon after the vernal equinox.”
Following Millstone’s cross-examination of Swanson, Shepherd adjourned the hearing until March 20 as no other witnesses were immediately available. He said additional scheduled dates include March 25, 26 and 27, and that dates in April are being considered.