MOUNT VERNON — “That’s not Zach’s arm,” was the late afternoon bombshell dropped by Ben Nielson during Thursday’s contract termination hearing regarding John Freshwater. Nielson was referring to a newspaper photo purported to depict the alleged injury to Zach Dennis’ arm caused by Freshwater with a high frequency generator.
Nielson had Freshwater for eighth-grade science last year, as did Dennis, and said he, too, volunteered to be marked by the device because he “thought it was cool.” Nielson was marked the day after the experiment with Dennis’ class.
Nielson said the mark from his wrist to the underside of his elbow did not hurt and did not sting, although a pinkish reddish line was evident. He said the mark on his own arm looked a lot like a cross, but the part where the cross intersected was a little slanted. Upon questioning by Freshwater’s attorney, Kelly Hamilton, Nielson said the mark could have been an X.
Nielson said he and Dennis, who have known each other since third grade and were in the same math class last year, compared arms in the hallway after Nielson’s experience. Nielson said the mark on Dennis’ arm was “much smaller and lighter than mine.” He testified he also talked with Dennis in math class the next day and Dennis was wearing a short-sleeve shirt, so Nielson had first-hand knowledge that there was no raised or blistered skin at that time. Nielson reported that Dennis told him the only time it hurt was when he put on his hockey pads.
Nielson also testified that Freshwater never pushed creationism or intelligent design in class and was not the assigned leader of Dennis’ group for a field trip to Cleveland as Dennis claimed. Nielson said he was a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and that students led the devotions and contacted the speakers. To the best of his knowledge, Nielson said, Freshwater did not.
Regarding allegations that Freshwater taught about Good Friday and Easter in science class, Nielson said when he heard a fellow student ask what Good Friday was, Freshwater responded, “I can’t tell you. Ask your parents.”
Ben’s father, Mark Nielson, also testified as to his son’s astonished reaction when the newspaper photo appeared.
The morning session started out with the continued cross-examination of middle school math teacher Lori Miller. David Millstone, the school board’s attorney, had Miller explain some legal issues in which she had been involved, and also asked whether she thought it was moral and ethical to make an audio recording of conversations without the other person’s knowledge. Miller said she didn’t view that as being unethical.
Thursday’s next witness was Lynda Weston, who recently retired as director of teaching and learning for Mount Vernon city schools. She talked about complaints from some middle school and high school teachers that Freshwater was not teaching the approved curriculum, and said students indicated he had been teaching intelligent design even after the school board said not to do so. She said the worksheets in question were not supplemental to the curriculum, but were contrary to science. Since she had no supervisory responsibilities over teachers, Weston said, she forwarded those complaints to then superintendent Jeff Maley.
Stating she knew “John is a man of strong religious convictions,” Weston said she had concerns about his influence on students. She testified she felt he was underhanded when dealing with students, using inappropriate handouts and calling into question material in the textbooks.
Hamilton asked whether she had knowledge of Freshwater’s personal beliefs; Weston said no. She added she was concerned because, when an influential teacher such as Freshwater taught things that were not recognized science, the students will believe him.
Weston also said she would have called Children Services if she had seen a similar mark on a child’s arm, that she did not direct the investigation into allegations against Freshwater and that she did not warn anyone to “remember who you work for.”
Hamilton also asked Weston about professional development opportunities for teachers in Mount Vernon, lesson plans, academic content standards and test scores. Millstone had her talk about age-appropriate instruction with regard to controversial subjects.
Julia Herlevi, co-owner of the investigating firm HR On Call, was the first witness called this morning. Hamilton asked Herlevi for specifics on how the investigation was conducted, who would be doing the interviews and how much evidence was required to sustain a particular allegation.