MOUNT VERNON — In recess since April 30, the John Freshwater contract termination hearing resumed Tuesday.
Freshwater, a Mount Vernon Middle School science teacher currently suspended without pay, is contesting the school board’s decision to consider firing him for alleged professional misconduct. The board said the misconduct includes causing physical harm to a student during a science experiment, overstepping his bounds as a monitor/advisor of the Fellowship For Christian Athletes, promoting particular religious beliefs in the classroom while denigrating others and being insubordinate in refusing to follow directives from the school administration.
Kelly Hamilton, Freshwater’s attorney, called Michael Molnar as the first witness on Tuesday. Molnar is an elementary school principal at Hilltop Elementary in the Beachwood school district. He has also served as a principal elsewhere and has classroom teaching experience.
Based on that experience, as well as his educational background, Hamilton had Molnar talk about 15 documents Hamilton had sent Molnar to review. Molnar commented on the state’s law requiring the mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse and related what he would have done if a parent had shown him photos similar to those introduced in evidence in this case. He said he would have immediately interviewed the student, teacher and the student’s parents, and would have contacted Knox County Children Services.
Molnar also discussed the district’s policies and procedures in regard to insubordination. He said an employee has the right to refuse to comply with an unlawful order.
With regard to a religious display, Molnar said the context and purpose of the items displayed would be factors in determining if it is in fact a religious display. He said one would have to talk with the items’ owner to determine the context and purpose.
Upon cross-examination by the school board’s lawyer, David Millstone, Molnar said he did not believe that directing someone to put his or her Bible out of sight of students was an unlawful order.
“If someone announces ‘I have been told to do something, but I’m not going to do it,’ would that be insubordination?” asked Millstone.
“It could be determined to be, “ Molnar replied.
Molnar also, upon redirect by Hamilton, said he believes it would be appropriate for FCA materials to be in a public classroom if that’s where the meetings are held.
James Patrick Johnston was next on the stand as a witness in a dual capacity. The first related to his interview of Freshwater on a Christian radio talk show on April 12, 2009; the second concerned Johnston’s medical expertise as a pediatric physician in Dresden.
The board’s medical expert was David Levy, chairman of emergency medicine at the St. Elizabeth Health Center in Youngstown. Levy testified on Oct. 30, 2008, that the photographs of the alleged injury to a student were consistent with what an electrical burn would look like.
Shown those photographs, Johnston speculated the marks could be from poison ivy or a scrape of some sort. He also talked about allergies and sensitive skin. He said he doubted the pictures show a second-degree burn, as that would have been “excruciating” and that he would have prescribed narcotic pain relievers in a similar case. Johnston further stated that, in his opinion, if it were second-degree burns, the “parents were negligent in not taking the child to a doctor.”
Former school board member Ian Watson was the final witness for the day. Several questions posed by Hamilton were disallowed by hearing referee Lee Shepherd — Millstone objected to several on the basis of attorney-client privilege and law concerning executive sessions.
Watson said he had no contact with personnel from HR on Call, the investigating firm hired by the board to look into allegations against Freshwater. Watson testified he had a number of conversations with a student’s father regarding his son being burned by Freshwater in class, about religious information in Freshwater’s classroom, about Freshwater’s leadership of the FCA, and about some of the questions Freshwater allegedly asked his son and about a certain extra credit assignment.
Answering questions from Hamilton, Watson said he applied a high-frequency device, referred to in the hearing as a Tesla coil, to his own arm in order to determine if the device would make a mark, as the student claimed, or would not make a mark, as Freshwater claimed.
Asked why Freshwater could be charged with using a Tesla coil when Watson did so himself, Watson told Hamilton, “It’s different. I’m an economist. He’s a science teacher.”
Hamilton queried Watson about newspaper articles from April 2008, his definition of insubordination and whether he had contacted the American Civil Liberties Union regarding the allegations relating to religion. Watson said he had, adding that the ACLU viewpoint would not have changed his opinion regarding the Bible on Freshwater’s desk.
Watson was expected to resume the stand when the hearing reconvened at 9 this morning.
Although dealing with similar issues, Freshwater-related civil suits being heard in federal court are separate from the contract termination proceedings.