Investigator’s report examined

Investigator’s report examined
By Pamela Schehl - Mount Vernon News - 1/8/2009 - original
MOUNT VERNON — The cross-examination of Thomas Herlevi, owner of HR on Call, the firm hired to investigate allegations against Mount Vernon teacher John Freshwater, consumed most of Wednesday’s hearing.

Freshwater’s attorney, Kelly Hamilton, continued to ask Herlevi about the report filed after the investigation, and about the procedures in the interview process. Questions included how witnesses were chosen, whether follow-up questions should have been asked, how Herlevi determined what was relevant and should be included in the report, how Herlevi decided to excluded some items, who knew what when, who said what when, and whether Herlevi thought those he interviewed were credible.

“Did you ever question the Dennis family’s credibility?” Hamilton asked.

“No,” replied Herlevi. “I think they were very credible.”

The Dennis family had brought allegations against Freshwater, stating he burned a cross on their son’s arm during a science experiment.

Hamilton questioned Herlevi regarding many portions of the report and attachments, sometimes line by line, and Herlevi said he stood by the report and what was contained therein.

“I believe I had enough evidence to make the conclusions I made,” said Herlevi.

Of the 12 allegations made against Freshwater, Herlevi determined there was insufficient evidence to support five of them.

There was also a discussion about the teacher union collective bargaining agreement and whether the investigator followed procedures. Herlevi reiterated that he was not employed by the school district to do the investigation. Since a union representative was present during interviews with teachers, Herlevi said, he felt he adequately followed the union’s requirements.

Upon redirect by David Millstone, the school board’s lawyer, Herlevi confirmed that he started the investigation with no preconceived ideas and was given no direction by school officials or Millstone as to what the findings should be.

Former Freshwater student Joseph Barone testified just before the hearing was adjourned for the day. He was in Freshwater’s science class during the 2001-02 school year, and submitted some handouts and class notes from that school year.

Barone told Millstone that Freshwater did raise issues about evolution in class, and had the students debate both sides of the issue. Barone reported that Freshwater used that debate format because “he was uncomfortable teaching evolution because he didn’t believe in it.”

During the cross-examination by Hamilton, Barone said he had looked forward to being in Freshwater’s class, because he knew him from having played soccer with Freshwater’s son, Luke. He said most of the year was all right, until the evolution unit came up toward the end of the school year and the debates began.

He said his position on evolution was that it could be possible.

“My spirituality allowed me to be a Catholic and still accept evolution,” he explained. “I said you could believe in both and other students said I wasn’t a real Christian. Other offensive things were said about me.”

Barone said he felt disappointed that Freshwater did nothing to curb the negative comments and verbal abuse by other students.

“I think he enjoyed the debate,” Barone said, “and felt his lack of reaction was tacit agreement with the others. ... He should have known I was being ganged up on.”

After the hearing was adjourned, Barone told the News, “I came because I was asked to. It was known that I was in Mr. Freshwater’s eighth-grade science class and I had an experience I thought would help the hearing. I endured it when I was in eighth-grade because I thought that my case was rare.

“I came to maybe help other kids. I wouldn’t say I have a chip on my shoulder — I’m trying to help out because there is a young person whose reputation is at stake, and I want to make sure that others aren’t harmed.”