Schools chief: Teacher meant no harm to kids

Schools chief: Teacher meant no harm to kids
By Dean Narciso - Columbus Dispatch - 10/4/2008 - original
Mount Vernon teacher John Freshwater is accused of teaching religion and burning a student.
MOUNT VERNON, Ohio -- Until his district started investigating complaints that eighth-grade science teacher John Freshwater was teaching religion, the Mount Vernon schools superintendent kept a Bible verse on the wall of his office.

"I did," Superintendent Steve Short testified yesterday during a hearing to determine whether Freshwater should be fired.

"I don't now."

It was on a picture painted by his son, he said.

Short also testified that he didn't think the cross-shaped burn marks Freshwater is accused of placing on a student's arm were abuse that needed to be reported to child-protection authorities. The family of the student, Zach Dennis, has sued the district and Freshwater in federal court.

"I do not believe he meant to hurt the student," Short testified yesterday, "but I do believe it was a cross."

And whether Freshwater meant to hurt Zach, Short said of pictures of the marks, "It looks like an injury to me."

R. Kelly Hamilton, Freshwater's attorney, questioned whether the pictures were authentic.

Hamilton said he believes the district launched an investigation of Freshwater only after the district was sued.

The school board intends to fire Freshwater for teaching religion in his science class and for using a laboratory device that emits 50,000 volts of static electricity to shock students. He has said that he stopped using the device in December after the district ordered him to do so.

After yesterday's hearing, Freshwater said that he had used the device, also know as a Tesla coil, on at least 600 students in his 16 years in the district to illustrate the properties of low-current electricity.

The device is typically used to ionize gases to help identify them by their colors.

Many of the students volunteered to have the device applied to them.

But Freshwater used it on at least one special-needs student when the boy bent over in front of the class to pick something up, Short testified.

In addition to removing the device from his room, Freshwater also removed most religious items, again after the district ordered him to do so. But he kept a poster with a Bible verse and his personal Bible.

Yesterday, Hamilton placed Freshwater's well-worn copy of the Living Bible next to Short and asked whether there were any markings on it that would "promote or denigrate" a specific religion.

Short said that he owned the same Bible, but otherwise could not identify it as a Muslim, Jewish or Christian book. "Individually, no, but when it's a collection of things in a room, then yes," Short said.

Short said Freshwater violated district policy when he refused to remove the poster and Bible.

"I believe that is gross insubordination," Short testified.

Short halted with emotion toward the end of his testimony when describing how his and Freshwater's children played baseball together and how Freshwater's daughter, a member of the high school's homecoming court, had visited his home.

Because of conflicting attorneys' schedules, the hearing will resume on Oct. 28 at 9 a.m.