MOUNT VERNON — The Dennis family continued to be the focus of questioning during Friday’s session of the contract termination hearing of suspended Mount Vernon Middle School science teacher John Freshwater.
In the morning, Freshwater’s lawyer Kelly Hamilton resumed his examination of Stephen Dennis, the father of the student allegedly burned by Freshwater during a science experiment in December 2007. Hamilton asked Stephen about his knowledge of, and experiences with, Tesla coils both prior to and after the December incident. Stephen said he had no knowledge before the injury to his son occurred.
Hamilton also asked Stephen whether his son had told him how many people participated in the experiment, their reactions when touched by the electric arc, whether or not other students’ arms were marked and also requested the names of those individuals.
Referencing a newspaper article dated Oct. 28, 2008, Stephen identified the arm in the accompanying photo as his own.
Hamilton asked Stephen to confirm that he first knew of his son’s injury after hockey practice. Stephen did so, and said it upset him enough that he took pictures of it on his cell phone to show school administrators.
“I don’t expect my son to go to school,” he said, “and come home with a cross on his arm.” Stephen described the mark as red blotches resembling welts and added that he was not sure whether it could be considered abuse on Freshwater’s part. Upon further questioning by Hamilton, Stephen said he relied on Superintendent Steve Short to make that determination. When asked by Hamilton, Stephen also said he was more concerned about his son’s well-being than with John Freshwater getting in trouble.
As he did with Zach Dennis, Hamilton questioned Stephen to solicit details of allegations made in the report prepared by the independent investigation firm HR on Call. One point raised by Hamilton dealt with the possibility that hockey pads had intensified the injury to Zach’s arm. Stephen said he may have mentioned that to the investigators at the time, and added that his opinion has since changed. “After I saw Ian Watson’s arm,” he explained, “my sentiment changed.”
Watson is the school board president, and had apparently tried the science experiment on himself after learning of the Dennis family complaint.
Asked why his family contacted an attorney on Jan. 7, 2008, Stephen said they were upset by information relayed by Zach. Stephen said Zach had told him and his wife, Jennifer, that Freshwater notified the students he had “talked to lawyers and we can win this case and will be on national TV.” Stephen said his supposition is that Freshwater was referring to the school’s requirement for signed permission slips before students could attend Fellowship of Christian Athletes meetings.
Hamilton also questioned Stephen extensively regarding particulars in a letter the Dennis’ former attorney wrote to the school administration, and spent several minutes asking about FCA permission slips and related issues.
During cross-examination by the school board’s attorney David Millstone, Stephen said he and his wife were upset that their son’s identity was not kept confidential, and have created a Web site (with Sam and Paula Barone) to work to change the law to protect children’s confidentiality.
Jennifer Dennis was the second and final witness for the day. Hamilton asked her if she kept any notes about conversations she has had concerning the case, and wanted to know the color of the note binder and how many pages it contained. He also asked the names of the persons she has talked with concerning the situation and wanted details of the discussions.
Regarding the October newspaper article, Jennifer said she and her husband did not want to go public, but did so on the advise of counsel. She said, “It broke my heart that my son’s name had to be out there,” but felt it was necessary to tell his side of the story.
As with Stephen, Hamilton asked Jennifer about the photos taken of Zach’s arm, whether a doctor had been consulted, and whether any treatment was provided. She said she probably gave Zach Tylenol and applied cold washcloths to his arm the night the injury occurred. She said the mark on his arm lasted a while, fading until it was completely gone by the end of Christmas break.
Hamilton also asked Jennifer about allegations in the HR on Call report, her conversations with school board members, and revisited the letter written by the former attorney. Hamilton questioned her as to the basis for the statements in the letter, and also referenced the civil suit the Dennis family has filed in federal court.
Hamilton had also previously referred to the civil suit when examining Stephen, and Millstone and the new Dennis lawyer Doug Mansfield objected several times. Hearing referee R. Lee Shepherd overruled some of those objections and sustained others.
Millstone, during cross-examination, asked whether the Dennises had been approached by national television personnel. She said they had, but declined to appear. Millstone asked whether anyone connected with the case had been on national television and she named John Freshwater, David Daubenmire and Kelly Hamilton.
After the hearing was adjourned, attorneys for both sides met with Shepherd concerning, among other things, plans to subpoena school board members.
The hearing is scheduled to resume on Thursday, June 18.