Freshwater Hearing: 3rd Day

This is a summary of Day 3 of the administrative hearing to determine whether John Freshwater will be terminated as a middle school science teacher in the Mt. Vernon, Ohio, City Schools. Days 1 and 2 are here.

Three witnesses testified today, Zachary Dennis, the boy who was (allegedly) burned with a Tesla coil, his mother Jenifer Dennis, and Freshwater. We’re still in the stage where the Board of Education is presenting its case for termination; later Freshwater will be allowed to put on a defense.

Summaries below the fold.

Zachary Dennis Direct Examination

First up was Zachary Dennis, who was in Freshwater’s 8th grade class last year. Under direct examination by David Millstone, the Board’s attorney, he walked through a number of the issues that have been raised in the case. This is a summary of that testimony.

Freshwater used the Tesla coil in science class to demonstrate how different gases displayed different colors when ionized. But he also used it to demonstrate the effects of the output on students. He first lined volunteers up in a daisy chain, holding hands, and zapped the first student in the chain to see how far the shock would propagate.

He then solicited volunteers to be zapped individually. Zach described how he placed his hand on the plate of an overhead projecter. According to Zach’s testimony, Freshwater held his hand down and made two vertical passes with the Tesla coil and two horizontal passes. Zach testified that Freshwater told him that “It was like a temporary tattoo and those crosses would last a while.” When specifically questioned about it, Zach affirmed that “those crosses” was Freshwater’s phrase. Zach also testified that Freshwater “zapped” another special needs student from behind as the student bent to pick something up.

Zach testified that there was discomfort immediately after the event, and that it became worse as the night wore on, possibly because his hockey goalie gear contributed to the irritation. Even before that, however, it was red and blotchy, he said. He couldn’t sleep for the burning sensation it gave him that night.

Zach testified that Freshwater brought up religion in class in several ways. First, he used a video, “The Watchmaker,” that likens life to a watch (Paley, anyone?). Millstone showed the video in the hearing room. It’s pure Paley, and was produced by Truth4kids is run by an engineer named Dave Hawkins, known on multiple web forums as “afdave.” Dave also blogs at Truthmatters, and he is a young-earth creationist.

Zach testified that Freshwater referred to a “higher being” in the context of Big Bang theory. When teaching the Big Bang, a girl in the class commented “This is magic!”, and Freshwater replied “Or a higher being.”

Zach testified that Freshwater used a handout which said that someone had taken a sample from a Mt. St. Helen’s deposit after the eruption and had it “carbon dated” and it came back dated at millions of years old, when it was supposedly from a 10 year-old deposit by the volcano. That might be associated with Steve Austin mis-sampling specimens in a well-rebutted case.

Either in a handout or in class Freshwater was claimed to have repeated the tired YEC moon dust argument.

Zach testified that Freshwater used Answers in Genesis as an internet resource in class, and assigned Zach to do some reading of AIG.

Zach testified that Freshwater taught what he called “hydrosphere theory.” Asked to describe it, Zach outlined another creationist classic, Water Vapor Canopy. Freshwater apparently didn’t explicitly tie that to Noah’s Flood, though Zach testified that’s how he interpreted it.

Zach testified that Freshwater encouraged Fellowship of Student Athletes members to call the local movie theater to ask that it show “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.” Further, Freshwater accompanied a number of FCA students to a showing of it. In his science class he gave an extra-credit assignment to students to write an “unbiased” paragraph about the movie.

Zach testified that Freshwater had a signaling system, so when the class encountered something in text or lecture that wasn’t necessarily true, like an old earth, they were to signal that by saying “Here!” The meaning was that no one was there to see it, and therefore it is not necessarily trustworthy. (Recall Kent Hovind’s Ken Ham’s “Were you there?” rhetoric.)

Though as a faculty monitor of FCA Freshwater was not supposed to participate or lead, Zach testified that Freshwater participated in and led prayers with the FCA leadership group, selected videos for them to see (Including “Obsession,” an anti-muslim video), picked some of the speakers, and occasionally picked students to lead prayers.

Zach testified that Freshwater told him to call two potential FCA speakers, and gave him their phone numbers, violating the instruction to FCA monitors that they are not to take the lead in such matters.

Zach said that FCA students were told by Freshwater that they shouldn’t see “The Golden Compass,” the movie made from the first of Pullman’s trilogy. My notes don’t tell me if he told them why.

Zachary Cross Examination

There was no cross examination. Kelly Hamilton, Freshwater’s attorney, elected to forgo cross since Zach will be called as a hostile witness for direct examination when Freshwater puts on his case. He made the same decision about Zach’s mother. The attorney for the Board, David Millstone, argued that forgoing cross-examination is forgoing cross examination, and Hamilton has his chance now and in direct during Freshwater’s case shouldn’t be allowed to (in effect) do cross then. After mulling over lunch, the referee ruled that he saw no reason for limits on Hamilton during a subsequent direct examination. I suspect there’s much looking up of cases on both sides overnight.

Jenifer Dennis Direct Examination

Zach’s mother Jenifer testified next. She related how Zach came home from school and showed her the mark. She was concerned, but with a neighbor there and Zach due to be driven 1.5 hours to hockey practice (for the obvious reason that Mt. Vernon doesn’t have any ice) she didn’t make a big deal of it then. She did take two pictures of the injury with her digital camera. Later her husband called her from the rink and said Zach was complaining of pain in his arm and was using it strangely on the rink. He took pictures of it with his cell phone.

[Added in edit 11/2/08] Mother informed me that she actually took the pictures late that night after Zachary arrived home following hockey practice, and that’s what she recalled testifying. That’s plausible – my notes are occasionally fragmentary. Her husband took cell phone pictures of Zachary’s arm at hockey practice.

In answer to a direct question from Millstone she denied “doctoring” the pics.

When Zach got home (around 11:30) he was tired and went to bed. However, he couldn’t sleep and called her in. She took more pictures, but elected not to take him to the emergency room. She’s a former surgical technician and evaluated the marks as non-threatening, on the order of a bad sunburn or a burn from a stove burner.

The next morning she and her husband went to the school with the pictures and talked with the Superintendent, Steve Short (who testified on Days 1 & 2 linked above). They told Short the didn’t want Freshwater to be fired, but wanted to ensure that whatever caused the marks to be stopped.

Again, there was no cross examination.

John Freshwater’s Direct Examination

Millstone called John Freshwater as a hostile witness for direct examination. First Millstone rehearsed various public statements Freshwater has made: that hed never burned or branded an student and had never taught creationism. Millstone played videos of Freshwater speaking to the Board of Education in August 2008 and an interview with Fox News sometime in the summer (I didn’t get the URL for the latter). Both supported the assertions above. Freshwater testified that there are three categories: evolution, creationism, and intelligent design. He said that he teaches evolution and not the other two, and that’s been true through his (24-year) career.

He testified that he’d used the Tesla coil on somewhere in the range of 500 to 600 students through the years. He identified two examples of Tesla coils that had been removed from the middle school as similar to the one he’d used, but said that he still has the one he used. Pressed by Millstone, Freshwater did not account for taking the school property home. Asked “Were you authorized b anyone to take it from the school?” he answered “No.”

Asked what a Tesla coil is used for, he responded to show gases of different colors when ionized, and to study human reactions. (That last may not be a direct quote, but it’s close.) Asked what Tesla coils are used for outside the classroom, he responded that he didn’t know.

He testified that he knew the Tesla coil generated over 20,000 volts, but doesn’t know how long he’s known that – perhaps 21 years (the length of time he’s been teaching in Mt. Vernon.). He wouldn’t say if 20,000 volts to 45,000 volts is “high” voltage. He wasn’t certain if he knew previously that it operated at 500 KHz. He doesn’t know if the small amount of ozone produced by its operation is hazardous. He had never seen an instruction manual for the device. He was shown the instruction manual downloaded from the manufacturer’s web site by the independent investigator. He was asked to read into the record excerpts from it bearing on the safety warning to not allow it to touch skin.

Moving to December 6, 2007, when Zachary was injured, and concerning the special needs student who was “zapped,” Freshwater said that it was inadvertent, that the boy was walking past him and he accidentally contacted the tip of the Tesla coil.

Moving on to the Zachary incident, Freshwater described how the dais chain had himself as the first link contacting the Tesla coil, with students chained from him. Again, it was to see how far the electricity would propagate.

Freshwater then solicited individual volunteers to be shocked. Zachary was among 4-6 volunteers. Freshwater denied holding Zachary’s hand on the overhead table, saying the kids just held out their arms and usually quickly withdrew them when the first shock was applied. Asked why they withdrew quickly, he said “Because it hurts.” He said he always shocks himself first.

He denied seeing a mark on Zachary after the shock, and did not recall calling it a temporary tattoo or a cross. He did acknowledge saying he put an “X” on Zachary’s arm. He denied that the pictures taken by Jenifer Dennis and entered as exhibits were an accurate depiction of what was on Zachary’s arm.

Asked if he knew any reason Zach would not tell the truth, he answered, “No.”

Asked if when students are zapped individually does it leave a mark, Freshwater responded “A slight reddening.”

Moving on to FCA, there was some testimony about confusion over parental permission to attend FCA concerning whether it had to be written or could be verbal over the phone.

Freshwater denied initiating contact with potential speakers at FCA. Confronted with an email from his school account to a potential speaker, he claimed his daughter, an FCA member, must have used his official school email account to invite the speaker.

Freshwater acknowledged telling Zach to call a couple of speakers and giving him their phone numbers.

In response to a series of questions, Freshwater denied leading FCA meetings, denied selecting videos for FCA meetings, and denied praying at FCA meetings. He explained that last by saying “I pray all the time, sir.” He testified that it was his daughter’s suggestion to show “Obsession,” the anti-Muslim video.

Thus endeth the morning session at 1:15 pm.

In the afternoon session Millstone turned to the issue of religious displays in Freshwater’s classroom. After establishing the timeline for their removal (Apr 6-16 2008), Millstone asked about the two books Freshwater checked out of the middle school library and placed on his science table in the classroom. They were a Bible and a book titled “Jesus of Nazareth.” Asked why he had them there, Freshwater responded that since he’d been instructed to keep his own Bible out of sight during class time and had not done so, he was afraid he’d come into his classroom some morning and find his own Bible gone and wanted the other available since the Bible is his inspiration. He did not recall saying he had them there to “make a point” as the independent investigator’s report alleged.

He recalled the middle school principal telling him that it would be insubordination to fail to comply with the instruction to keep his Bible out of sight during class hours, but then said he didn’t think it was insubordination.

He agreed that he had posters from an evangelistic event of Will Graham in 2007 but didn’t recall if he posted them in his classroom.

He acknowledged having had a short class discussion of the meaning of Easter in the context of teaching lunar calendars.

He denied showing “The Watchmaker” in class, claiming that his daughter selected it for showing at FCA after watching it at home. He couldn’t remember how he got it. (I’ll note that the version shown in the hearing room during Zach’s testimony appeared to be the original, down to the original file name. It wasn’t the Youtube version.)

He was asked if Answers in Genesis is an apologetics site. He didn’t know, and characterized it as an “informational” site. He was then asked to read into the record the first paragraph from the AIG “About Us” page identifying it as an apologetics ministry. He acknowledged referring Zachary to AIG, and also showed the AIG site in class. He acknowledged making AIG-based assignments to perhaps a dozen students in the 2007-8 school ear.

Moving on to the Big Bang, he acknowledged that he discussed “hydrosphere theory” as Zachary had testified. He said it was in the context of discussing alternatives. It was never clear what hydrosphere theory has to do with the origin of the universe. He evaded question about what hydrosphere theory implies. (Noah’s Flood wasn’t directly mentioned.)

Asked to define a scientific theory, he responded “Something that’s backed up with scientific information and knowledge, that’s not completely proved. It’s not a law yet.” (That’s very close to a direct quote, if perhaps not precisely so. Freshwater speaks softly and it was often hard to hear him even though I was in the front row. I have no idea how the court reporter coped, though her ears are about 30 years younger than mine.)

Asked if a scientific theory was merely a hypothetical, Freshwater responded “There may be some doubt.”

Asked “Is hydrosphere theory a scientific theory?” Freshwater answered “Yes.”

Asked “In order to be accepted, does a scientific theory have to be published in reputable scientific journals and be subject to peer review?” Freshwater answered “No.”

Asked if he presided over a debate in his classroom in 2007-2008 on evolution vs. creationism, he answered “Yes.”

Asked what the scientific consensus is about the age of the universe he answered “About 20 billion years.” Scientific consensus on the age of the earth? “About 5 billion years.”

Freshwater acknowledged telling students in class that it was possible that humans and dinosaurs were on the earth together at the same time.

Freshwater affirmed that he told students that Tyrannosaurus rex had teeth that were “not deep enough” for it to be a carnivore.

Freshwater acknowledged that he read (portions of?) Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul in class (not clear which particular member of that group of books was used).

Handed two worksheets, “Giraffes” and “Woodpeckers,” he acknowledged that the last question on each was identical: “Was an ID involved?” Freshwater denied knowing whether “ID” in that context meant “intelligent designer,” and could not recall where he got the worksheets. He testified that he didn’t use them after 2003 when his proposal to adopt the Intelligent Design Network “Objective Origins Policy” was rejected by the Board of Education. He also testified that he used Wells’ Survival of the Fakest until 2003.

Asked if he had heard complaints on multiple occasions from high school science teachers about his teaching, he answered “Yes.” Asked about the topic of their complaints, he responded “How I teach evolution.”

Moving on to Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, he acknowledged that he had called the theater to ask them to show the movie, and said it was his daughter’s idea to take a group of FCA students to it. (Are we sensing a theme yet?) Freshwater evaded answering whether Zachary’s testimony that he had encouraged FCA members to also call the theater was accurate.

He did not recall telling students that homosexuality is a sin, but did acknowledge using an analogy between sexuality and magnets, saying opposite poles attract and similar poles repel.

Asked if he used a Kent Hovind video, he said “Pieces of it. It relates to the standards that I teach to.” Asked what pieces, he responded “It’s about whales, moths.” Asked what it purports to teach or show, he responded “It examines evolution. It’s showing evidence of evolution. It’s talking about the evolving (sic) of whales.” He would not disagree that it is questioning evolution. (Sorry for the syntax: That’s the way the question was worded.)

Asked why he kept Wells’ Icons of Evolution in his room, Freshwater responded that “It’s looking at evolution and the icons of it.” He agreed that it was not supportive of evolution.

Then a reprise of videos: Does he have a video called “Ten Lies of Evolution” in his room? “Yes.” Does he have a book titled “Refuting Evolution” in his room? “Yes.” Has he shown a video on the Loch Ness Monster that says the earth is less than 6,000 years old? Not since 2003.

Returning to his 2003 proposal, Freshwater didn’t know where he got the “Objective Origins Policy.” He didn’t know much about the Discovery Institute. He said he was “closely tracking” the No Child Left Behind Act at that time (presumably the so-called Santorum Amendment, though that wasn’t explicit in the testimony).

Finally, earlier in his testimony he said “it is possible” that he told students in some context that Catholics are not Christians.

Once again, Freshwater’s attorney elected to forgo cross examination.

Thus endeth the third day.

Editorial Note

I’ve tried to stay more or less neutrally reportial in this summary. However, as you all know, I’m a partisan. I’m too damned tired to editorialize; I think it’s obvious in the summary of Freshwater’s testimony that he is incompetent to teach science in the public schools. I leave rounding up news stories to commenters: I’m too tired now, and there’s another day tomorrow.

Tomorrow: The fourth day.