Students didn't complain about Freshwater, teachers say

Students didn't complain about Freshwater, teachers say
By Dean Narciso - The Columbus Dispatch - 1/16/2009 - original
Students never complained about 8th grade science teacher John Freshwater or what he was teaching, four Mount Vernon Middle School teachers testified today.

The teachers said they also heard no complaints from Zachary Dennis, whose parents have sued the district and Freshwater. The family says Freshwater burned a cross shape on the boy's forearm last year with an electrical instrument used to test gases in a laboratory.

The school board has said it intends to fire Freshwater. But state law gives the teacher a hearing before that can happen. Today's testimony came from teachers called by Freshwater's attorney. Each shook Freshwater's hand as he or she left the hearing.

The teachers also testified that the district gave them no instruction on school policies about teaching religious or controversial subjects.

Tammy Henry, an English teacher since 2001, encouraged her students to write personal observations in a diary they were required to keep in her 8th grade English class.

The students described difficult teachers, personal problems and classroom politics. But last year, none ever mentioned Freshwater.

"It really shocked me," Henry said. "They would discuss other things with me."

After hearing media accounts of the accusations against Freshwater, Henry e-mailed her principal, Bill White, and Freshwater's attorney, R. Kelly Hamilton in July.

"I've been curious as to why no student ever mentioned anything related to the accusations," she wrote.

Brian Cook, who has taught history in the district for 27 years, said he and Freshwater were "different like oil and water," but that they got along. He also testified that he never heard Dennis, now enrolled in Mount Vernon High School, complain about being burned.

None of the teachers were interviewed by HR On Call, the firm the district hired to investigate the charges against Freshwater.

In addition to the burning incident, the firm's report alleges that Freshwater was insubordinate, taught creationism and other religious ideas and had religious displays in the classroom, including a Ten Commandments poster.

James K. Marth, who has taught math for 30 years, said he stopped teaching at the middle school this year because of an uncomfortable "culture of the building that comes from the top down."

Hamilton asked Marth to tack a large poster on the wall entitled "The Ten Indian Commandments" that he had posted in his classroom.

The poster, with a picture of a Native American smoking a peace pipe, contained statements about respecting the environment and other people's feelings, telling the truth and taking personal responsibility.

Asked if it was religious, Marth described the poster as "more philosophical, but not necessarily religious." The administration knew about the poster, but never asked Marth to remove it.

Since it started in October, the hearing has been delayed several times because of conflicts in attorneys' schedules.

After today, it will resume on Feb. 20.