Mount Vernon, Ohio is a small town with a big headache. The community of 15,000 in Central Ohio is divided over the actions of John Freshwater, a person found to be using his position as a middle school science teacher to undermine the separation of church and state, to teach creationism and intelligent design in his classrooms, and to even burn crosses on the arms of his students.
Yet, despite Mr. Freshwater’s behavior, quite a few people in Mount Vernon support him. Apparently among his most ardent supporters are the members of a local Christian group that calls itself “Minutemen United“, and who envision themselves as existing “…to wage war against a culture of God-haters”.
The division in the community began back in early April when Mr. Freshwater received a letter from his principal, William D. White, ordering him to remove all religious materials from his classroom.
Mr. Freshwater responded a little over a week later. In a letter to Principal White, he agreed to remove the Ten Commandments from his door, along with some biblical posters and spare Bibles from his classroom, but he refused to remove his personal Bible from where it was displayed on his desk.
“In addition, my superiors have ordered me to remove the Bible from the desk of my classroom. Because the Bible is personal, private property and the source of personal inner-strength in my own life the removal of it from my desk would be nothing short of infringement on my own deeply held, personal religious beliefs granted by God and guaranteed under the ‘free-exercise clause’ of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution,” Mr. Freshwater wrote.
Mr. Freshwater soon thereafter gathered about 100 people together on Mount Vernon’s public square and read a declaration of his God-given and Constitutional right to keep his Bible on his desk. Within a couple days, some former students of his organized a rally for him which was attended by “hundreds of students [from both the high school and the middle school], joined by some parents and community members…”.
Up until this point the issue was being spun by Mr. Freshwater as solely a matter of whether he could keep his personal Bible on display in his classroom. But then the local newspaper, The Mount Vernon News, received a fax from an attorney representing anonymous plaintiffs. The fax read in part:
We are religious people, but we were offended when Mr. Freshwater burned a cross onto the arm of our child. This was done in science class in December 2007, where an electric shock machine was used to burn our child. The burn was severe enough that our child awoke that night with severe pain, and the cross remained there for several weeks. … We have tried to keep this a private matter and hesitate to tell the whole story to the media for fear that we will be retaliated against.
We are Christians who practice our faith where it belongs, at church and in our home and, most importantly, outside the public classroom, where the law requires a separation of church and state.
The plaintiffs — who wished to remain anonymous to prevent their child from being retaliated against — made clear in the fax that this was not about Mr. Freshwater’s Bible, which they did not object to, “but about the violation of laws and defiance of school policy”.
By the time the School Board met to discuss the matter, many more allegations had surfaced. Consequently, the Board met in executive session to decide to have an independent organization investigate the allegations, and Superintendent Steve Short announced, “The allegations against Mr. Freshwater are very serious. This is not about his personal Bible on his desktop. It is about the totality of his conduct.”
The organization that investigated Mr. Freshwater was HR on Call, a human resources company. It took all of May and most of June to pour over the records, interview people, and otherwise research the matter. Yesterday, the Company released it’s report. Among the findings:
•Mr. Freshwater did burn a cross onto the complaining family’s child’s arm using an electrostatic device not designed for that purpose. While there did not appear to be any intent by Mr. Freshwater to cause injury to any student, he was not using the device for its intended purpose. Contrary to Mr. Freshwater’s statement he simply made an “X” not a “cross,” all of the students described the marking as a “cross” and the pictures provided depict a “cross.”
•The Ten Commandments together with other posters of a religious nature were posted in Mr. Freshwater’s classroom. Most were removed after Mr. White’s letter of April 14, 2008, but at least one poster remained which Mr. Freshwater was again instructed to remove on April 16, 2008, but did not do so.
•Several Bibles were kept in Mr. Freshwater’s classroom including his personal Bible on his desk and one he checked out of the library placed on the lab table near the desk. Other Bibles that had been maintained in the room were removed by the time the investigators viewed Mr. Freshwater’s room.
•Mr. Freshwater engaged in teaching of a religious nature, teaching creationism and related theories and calling evolution into question. He had other materials in his classroom that could be used for that purpose.
•Mr. Freshwater engaged in prayer during FCA [Fellowship of Christian Athletes] meetings in violation of the district’s legal obligations for monitoring such organizations.
•Mr. Freshwater participated and possibly led a prayer during an FCA meeting that concerned a guest speaker’s health. There is no conclusion as to whether such prayer was a “healing” prayer.
•There is no evidence Mr. Freshwater made statements about FCA members “being the saved ones” nor was there any corroboration to the allegation Mr. Freshwater gave FCA members Bibles for them to distribute. He did have two boxes of Bibles in the back of his room.
•Mr. Freshwater gave an extra credit assignment for students to view the movie “Expelled” which does involve intelligent design.
So a story that began with a middle school science teacher’s refusal to remove a Bible from display on his desk had now turned into a bizarre tale of cross burnings, proselytizing, undermining the separation of church and state, and teaching creationism and intelligent design in a public school. But the single most astonishing act in the drama was yet to come.
Yesterday’s report reveals Mr. Freshwater has a long history of complaints against him — all of which have been more or less ignored until the most recent ones. John Freshwater has taught at Mount Vernon Middle School for 21 years. For at least the past 11 years, he has been the subject of numerous complaints lodged against him by his fellow teachers, his students, and their parents.
His colleagues over at the high school, for instance, claim his teaching of evolution is so flawed they are forced to re-teach the subject to his students when they get into high school. It has also come out that Mr. Freshwater has been told on at least several occasions to change his behavior, but has refused to do so. Only now, years after the complaints first started coming in, has anything been done about them.
Today, Friday, the School Board “…unanimously passed a resolution of intent to consider the termination of [Mr. Freshwater’s] teaching contract. “Board president Ian Watson said the board will proceed with termination at its meeting on July 7, unless Freshwater files a written request for a hearing within 10 days of receiving notice of the board’s intent to fire him.”
Yet even before today’s School Board news, Mr. Freshwater’s friends were aiming to payback the Board. The melodramatic Minutemen United group earlier this week launched a drive to recall the School Board. Although the drive does not seem to have much chance of succeeding, it might indicate just how hot tempers are in Mount Vernon these days.
Minutemen United was founded by David Daubenmire, a man who was himself sued by the ACLU in 1999 for leading the high school football team he coached in prayer. Mr. Daubenmire is a close friend of Mr. Freshwater and has called the accusations against him a “witch hunt”. Mr. Daubenmire has said:
The science experiment [the alleged burning of the student] took place in December, and the parents did not go to the police and didn’t file a criminal complaint. It was not until April, when John Freshwater refused to remove his Bible, that the school board rapidly made the decision to accuse him of things and then go back and find evidence.
With the exception of the science experiment, John Freshwater is teaching the beliefs and values that the majority of people in this community agree with. The only thing the On Call report found is evidence that Mr. Freshwater is a Christian.
So, Mr. Daubenmire is still trying to spin the story as merely about John Freshwater displaying a Bible.
There is much more to this story than I have the space for — so I have provided references and further reading at the end of this post. It occurs to me, however, that we have here one instance of what’s going on in many hundreds — even thousands — of science classrooms across the country. Teachers entrusted to teach science are instead teaching creationism and intelligent design.
A team led by Michael Berkman recently polled 2,000 high school science teachers across the nation. Sixteen percent of them — about one in every six teachers — identified themselves as creationists. Moreover:
…a quarter of the teachers also reported spending at least some time teaching about creationism or intelligent design. Of these, 48 percent — about 12.5 percent of the total survey — said they taught it as a “valid, scientific alternative to Darwinian explanations for the origin of species”.
There are a lot of John Freshwater’s out there. And, intentionally or not, they are doing their best to undermine the nation’s science education.
I pity the kids who because of some fool teacher will grow up without an understanding of evolution. Not only will that close off some fields and opportunities for them, but how can anyone these days deeply understand human nature without understanding how human nature arose and evolved? Kids deprived of an adequate science education are kids who in the 21st Century will be left behind.
Main References and Further Reading:
Freshwater Considered for Contract Termination
Group Starts Preparations for Recalling Board Members
Independent Investigation of Complaint Regarding John Freshwater
Lawsuit Filed Against School, Teacher
Science Teacher Dissed Evolution
Students Back Defiant Teacher
Study: 16 Percent of US Science Teachers are Creationists
Special Blog References:
Ed Brayton over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars provides sharp details of the investigation report here.
Scott Pilutik, at Reality Based Community, has a brilliant insight into Mr. Freshwater’s betrayal of Jesus here.
Richard B. Hoppe at Panda’s Thumb has an excellent post on the larger significance of these events here.
Rob McGehee over at Wise Adder reports from down in the trenches of public school science teaching here.
Ceryx at The Bronze Gate explains one of the factors that moves creationists to deny evolution here.
Ed Darrell over at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub has put up an outstanding post that begins with a thorough discussion of the scientific instrument used to burn the students here.