Science teacher demonstrates device that burns

Science teacher demonstrates device that burns
By Dean Narciso - THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH - 1/9/2009
Science teacher John Freshwater is accused of burning students with a Tesla coil in his classroom.

As a deputy sheriff stood ready with a fire extinguisher and spectators stood and craned to get a better look, the science teacher held a steel-pointed black device and flipped the switch.

Bill Oxenford held the device, which produced a soft buzzing. He pressed another switch to increase the voltage and the buzzing got louder. Then he touched it to a piece paper. Within seconds, the paper ignited.

The attorney for the Mount Vernon School District had Oxenford demonstrate the Tesla coil, which is similar to one that another science teacher, John Freshwater, is accused of using to burn students. The district alleges that Freshwater misused the device that is normally employed to test gases in a laboratory.

The school board has said it intends to fire Freshwater, but state law says he is entitled to a hearing first. Yesterday's demonstration was part of that hearing.

As Oxenford dropped the smoldering paper into a waste can atop an attorney's desk, his hand touched the metal can and he was startled.

"I accidentally touched the waste can and got shocked," he said. "That's the way life is."

Oxenford earlier testified that in 25 years teaching middle-school science he had used the device more than 600 times to test gases -- and to shock willing, and eager, students.

"They'd always ask, 'Can we touch this? Can we touch this?' " Oxenford said.

Oxenford said he'd touch the tip of the device to a student's fingertip, a sensation he described as "not pleasant," but not dangerous. He said he never saw or heard of anyone being injured.

Asked why students would volunteer to feel it, he replied, "I don't know." That excitement was also shared in the eighth-grade science classroom of Freshwater, who is accused of teaching creationism and intelligent design and using the Tesla coil to burn cross shapes on at least two students.

Oxenford was told to retrieve up to six of the devices from Mount Vernon Middle School last year after parents of one of the burn victims complained. When asked about the device from Freshwater's classroom, Oxenford testified that Freshwater told him that "it had been destroyed. He said that was all he could say."

Both Freshwater and his attorney, R. Kelly Hamilton, declined to elaborate. Hamilton said only: "It will come out."

Oxenford, who coached science teachers on how to prepare students in the district to pass standardized science tests, also testified that Freshwater's class scored higher than the other science classes despite having the highest number of special needs students.

"I was delighted," Oxenford said. "We were seeing success."

In afternoon testimony, Charles Adkins, a one-time Ohio Department of Education official who took over Freshwater's job in August, testified that he investigated a handout critical of evolution that parents complained about in 2006.

It would be inappropriate for eighth-grade science, Adkins testified.

But when asked by Hamilton how a teacher would know what handouts to use, Adkins testified that there is no specific permission process for classroom handouts.

"We are given very wide latitude on what to use," he said.