Teacher's firing over religion fair, referee says

Teacher's firing over religion fair, referee says
Freshwater case - more

By Holly Zachariah - Columbus Dispatch - Jan 9,2011 - original
John Freshwater's fate is up to the school board. A Mount Vernon teacher defied his bosses and ignored the U.S. Constitution when he continually used his eighth-grade science classes to push his own religion, and he should be fired for it, a state hearing officer has concluded.

The Mount Vernon school board put John Freshwater on unpaid leave and voted in 2008 to fire him, saying he taught creationism and intelligent design, failed to remove religious materials from the classroom and burned crosses on students' arms during science experiments.

Freshwater, saying he'd done nothing wrong, fought to keep his job.

Before Ohio teachers can be fired, they are entitled to a hearing before a referee, who then makes a recommendation to the school board. Freshwater's hearing went on sporadically for nearly two years at a cost to taxpayers of at least $700,000.

R. Lee Shepherd, the hearing officer or "referee" assigned to the case by the Ohio Department of Education, issued the report recommending Freshwater's firing late Friday.

It is nonbinding, and the board of education - which includes two different members from when it voted to fire Freshwater - does not have to accept it.

Freshwater could not be reached yesterday, and his attorney, R. Kelly Hamilton, did not return a call seeking comment.

Freshwater's pastor, friend and adviser, Don Matolyak of the Trinity Assembly of God church in Mount Vernon, said Freshwater wouldn't make a comment because the school board hasn't yet acted on the report.

Mount Vernon Superintendant Steve Short said the district wouldn't have a comment until at least Monday.

In the report, Shepherd wrote that Freshwater was a popular middle-school teacher and that most of his students enjoyed his class. His students scored above average on state tests, and he often was recognized for his teaching skills, Shepherd said.

"Unfortunately, John Freshwater was not satisfied with the positive results of his teaching in terms of successful state test scores and the development of a love for the subject of science in the minds of his students," Shepherd wrote.

Instead, "he was determined to inject his personal religious beliefs into his plan."

During the protracted state hearings, Freshwater and his attorney argued that he had been targeted because he refused to remove his personal Bible from his desk.

In 2003, Freshwater asked the district to allow discussions of creationism, as well as evolution, in class. The board refused. The report said that Freshwater "overtly and covertly" began to teach creationism himself.

"He used his classroom as a means of sowing the seeds of doubt and confusion in the minds of impressionable students as they searched for meaning in the subject of science," Shepherd wrote.

District officials gave Freshwater plenty of warnings and opportunities to change his methods, Shepherd said.

He concluded that because Freshwater repeatedly violated the Constitution and district rules and ignored the orders of administrators, he should be fired.

Shepherd said the controversial claims that Freshwater used an electrical laboratory device to burn crosses on students' arms during science experiments were overblown. "Once sworn testimony was presented, it became obvious that speculation and imagination had pushed reality aside," he wrote.

Shepherd said the matter was dealt with administratively and the allegations were not a part of his recommendation to fire.

Yet in December, a judge approved a $450,000 settlement between Freshwater and the family of one of his former students who said he was one of those burned in class.

The money, which will be paid by the district's insurer, was to compensate Stephen and Jenifer Dennis and their son, Zachary, for mental and physical pain and suffering.

Dispatch correspondent Adam Taylor contributed to this story.