Freshwater: Playing fast and loose with the truth

John Freshwater has embarked on a mini-media campaign to discredit Zachary Dennis, the student whose arm was burned by a Tesla coil in a classroom demonstration in December, 2007, and his parents. Based on his representation of the testimony of other students on April 29 and 30, Freshwater is claiming publicly that Zachary is lying. But Freshwater’s story has some pretty significant holes and in important respects _mis_represents the testimony. Moreover, it is a transparent attempt to deflect attention from the actual matters at issue, including Freshwater’s inconsistent sworn claims about whether the Tesla coil even marked students and whether the display of religious materials, including multiple displays of the Ten Commandments, in Freshwater’s classroom was appropriate. Freshwater played fast and loose with the facts of the matter in the interview, and I’ll detail some of those offenses below the fold.

I recorded most of an interview Freshwater gave on local talk radio yesterday, May 6, and I’ll describe some of Freshwater’s claims and their problems below the fold. The full interview ran about 24 minutes; I have about 20 minutes of it recorded, punctuated by dogs barking (apparently at phantoms) and radio transmissions from my fire department pager that make it occasionally hard to hear the interview. I call it an “interview” but it was really an infomercial. The host, Dave Bevington, is a strong Freshwater supporter and served up softball questions that had clearly been briefed before the show began. [See note below.] Out of character for the “Open Debate” name of the show, no calls were accepted from listeners. (Remind anyone of the comment policy at an ID “blog” we know and cherish?)

The informercial interview is a target-rich environment, and I am going to have to work to keep this post to a reasonable length, under 3,000 or so words. I’ll try, but there are many temptations there.

Note added in edit May 13 The host of the talk radio show, Dave Bevington, denied on the air on May 11 that he bad discussed his questions with Freshwater before the show. That may be, but it still had the distinct feel of an infomercial rather than a journalistic exercise.

Disagreements over choreography

I missed the opening few minutes of the interview. When my recording starts, Freshwater is discussing the testimony of the 10 students I described in my “Exploiting kids” post five days ago. He starts with the claim that

It was very clear that .. uh .. that Zach Dennis .. uh .. was not .. is not being truthful.

Recall my description of how R. Kelly Hamilton, Freshwater’s attorney, elicited testimony from the students concerning how the Tesla coil demonstration was carried out:

  1. Hamilton would question them about the Tesla coil incident. As part of that, he put on a heavily over-dramatized re-enactment of Zachary’s description ). Hamilton’s re-enactment misrepresented Zachary’s testimony in important respects. For example, in October 2008 Zachary testified that he put his hand on the surface of the overhead projector and that Freshwater held his hand down and drew the cross shape on his arm with the Tesla coil. In his re-enactment, however, Hamilton, playing the role of Zachary, stooped and held his whole right forearm, fist clenched, on the overhead projector’s plate. Playing Freshwater, Hamilton then laid his left forearm, again with fist clenched, on top of the arm already on the overhead. His motions were large, abrupt, and dramatic.

Hamilton is an imposing man, an ex-Columbus Police Department sergeant who is about 6’1” and weighs (my guess) around 210 or 220. He was dressed in a dark suit, making his exaggerated motions more striking. Zachary is of relatively slim build and at the time of the incident in 8th grade was likely on the order of 5’6” and 130 or so pounds (my guess extrapolating back from his appearance when he testified in late 2008, roughly a year after the incident). The two are in no way comparable figures. Visualize the posture of a 5’6” kid bent slightly with his open hand and/or forearm on the plate of an overhead projector, and contrast that with a 6’1” man bent double at the waist with his whole forearm, fist clenched, on the plate and you’ll have an image of the misrepresentation of Hamilton’s re-enactment for the witnesses.

And in fact Hamilton did not actually ask students whether Zachary lied, but rather he asked them a hypothetical question: “If Zachary Dennis said that’s what happened, what would you say?” A number of them, sometimes after being pressed by additional questions from Hamilton about the scenario, answered that they’d say Zachary was not telling the truth, or he was lying.

Zachary testified twice about the incident in the hearing. The first occasion was on October 28, 2008, when the Board was putting on its case. This was my summary of that first occasion:

Zach described how he placed his hand on the plate of an overhead projector. 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.

Note the use of “hand.” The second time Zachary testified about the incident was during Freshwater’s presentation of his case in May 2009.

Unfortunately, I did not write up that day for PT–other commitments ate me up and it never got written. I have reviewed the official transcript of the hearing for that day, though, and Zachary did say in that testimony that his forearm was on the plate of the overhead projector, that he made a fist, and that Freshwater held the arm down, his right arm over Zachary’s right wrist, and that Zachary felt like he could not pull his arm out if he wished to. So there are some discrepancies about the precise choreography of the incident in Zach’s testimony on October 2008 and May 2009.

Most of the 10 students agreed that the Tesla coil left a mark on students’ arms, and they differed in how long those marks last. We’ve heard testimony from other students who said that the mark on their arms lasted over a week, several described the marks as a cross or an “X”, and one testified that his mark looked just like that depicted in photographs of Zachary’s arm. (See my quotations from this student’s deposition in the federal case.)

So the witnesses, including Zach Dennis, Taylor Strack, the deposition of another student, and the students heard this week differ on the exact choreography of the incident, but all agree on the fact that Freshwater used the Tesla coil on students’ arms, many agreed that it made marks on the students’ arms, and many agreed that the marks lasted for some time, in the days to a week or two range. The only disagreement among the witnesses is about the specific choreography of the incident with Zachary, and not about the fact of its occurrence or (in general) its effects.

Dancing around the truth

Contrast that agreement on the basics among the students with Freshwater’s sworn testimony. On the several occasions when he has testified under oath about the Tesla coil incident and about marking (or not) Zachary’s arm with the Tesla coil Freshwater has

  1. Conceded that he did so, but said the mark was an “X” not a cross (see here).

  2. Denied that the Tesla coil left marks on students’ arms. (Again, see here.)

  3. Suggested that the Tesla coil did not leave a mark on any students’ arm but only on his own arm (And again see here.)

  4. Declined to answer whether he did so, invoking his 5th Amendment right against self incrimination. (Again, here.)

Blowing it out of proportion?

Freshwater said in the infomercial interview:

There was one student that even said that they texted Zach and that Zach said … uh … because they just found out [unintelligible] year, so she said ‘Zach is it true about you?’ Text came back to her and said that ‘My mother, she blew this all out of proportion.’ And that would be referring to [unintelligible].

I can help Mr. Freshwater here. The student had heard in 9th grade, the next year, that Zachary had been the person who complained about Freshwater (non-specific about what complaint was being referred to), and texted him asking whether he was the one. According to my notes of her testimony, he responded to her by texting ‘yes but my parents blew it all out of proportion.”

The only possible response to that is So what? Whether Zachary thought, or thinks, that his parents blew the situation out of proportion is irrelevant. The questions at issue in the administrative hearing are whether an adult teacher in the course of his classroom behavior (a) willfully or neglectfully injured a child, (b) was insubordinate toward the administration, (c) violated the guidelnes for his behavior in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and/or (d) violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment in his display of religious items and posters, including multiple instances of the Ten Commandments, in his classroom. Those are the questions, not whether Zachary’s parents were too concerned about the safety of their child and other children in Freshwater’s classroom. The choreography of the specific incident is irrelevant to the grounds on which the Board of Education voted its Resolution of Intent to Terminate Freshwater’s employment. Kelly Hamilton is trying the wrong case here, frantically building straw men and burning them during the hearing in the hope that the smoke gets in the referee’s eyes..

All the other kids do it, dad

Freshwater spent some time in the infomercial interview arguing that lots of other teachers have used the Tesla coil on students in more or less the same manner over the years. The “all the other kids are doing it” plea didn’t move my father when I was 8 years old (“Would you jump off a cliff if all the other kids did?” was his rejoinder to my claim.) And at least one 8th grade science teacher, Elle Button, didn’t use the Tesla coil on students. In fact, she refused to shock Ian Watson, then President of the Board of Education, with it as a demonstration in the Principal’s office. That other people showed questionable judgment does not exonerate Freshwater of the charge that he displayed the same questionable judgment.

Dissing the Dispatch

In the infomercial interview Freshwater was very critical of the coverage of the case by the Columbus Dispatch. He went so far as to claim that an editor at the Dispatch, Paul Souhrada, is biased against him and therefore filters and otherwise alters the newspaper’s coverage to make Freshwater look bad:

I believe one of the reasons that is because the reporter, whose name is Dean Narcisco [sic; his pronunciation], his editor is a man named Souhrada, and Souhrada is local here, and he has opposed me from the beginning. He was on the witness stand last year. So everything is filtered through him. So anything gets in print in the Columbus Dispatch with my case is filtered through Mr. Souhrada. It’s slanted, it’s … uh … things are taken out of context.

Paul Souhrada, the editor in question, and his son Simon both testified in the hearing. But Souhrada has nothing to do with the Dispatch’s coverage of Freshwater’s travails. On October 31, 2008, in its reporting of the Souhradas’ testimony, the reporter, Dean Narciso, wrote

Paul Souhrada is an editor at The Dispatch, but he has not been involved in the assigning or editing of stories about Freshwater.

I checked with Narciso to see if that’s still the case. He responded

I can say that I’m still assigned to a separate editor on days I’m in Mount Vernon. The most I can tell my boss [Paul Souhrada] on those days is that I’ll be out of the office. I have no contact on the subject with him before, during or after my reporting.

So Freshwater’s claim is flatly false, made up out of whole cloth in his flailing around to find someone to blame.

Does it hurt?

This wasn’t in the informercial interview, but in his questioning of students last week Hamilton made a big deal of asking them if those being ‘zapped’ with the Tesla coil “cried out” or “whimpered” (Hamilton’s words) in pain. This is pure deception. It depends on the false assumption that there is no injury without pain. But as anyone who has had a severe sunburn can attest, one can receive a 1st degree burn (reddening of the skin) or 2nd degree burn (dermal reddening with blistering) while feeling only a sensation of mild warmth while the damage is occurring. The Tesla coil does not burn by radiative heating as the sun does, but radio frequency current can also cause tissue damage without significant pain, and the Tesla coil in question generates an RF signal at 500 KHz, just below the AM radio band.

This review summarizes pain thresholds for men and women in response to RF contact in the frequency range of interest here (500 KHz). The summary shows that the threshold for pain depends not on the voltage (ranging from 10 KV to 50 KV in the model Freshwater used), but on the current and frequency, with the pain threshold higher for higher frequencies. That is, it requires greater currents to cause pain at higher frequencies, and the curve asymptotes around 100 KHz, well below the 500 KHz frequency of the BDA10A. One can’t estimate the current likely to have been involved in Freshwater’s classroom demonstrations because the data in the referenced review was from barefoot subjects. (!) I’ve not found research on thresholds for tissue damage, but a Wikipedia article refers to tissue damage without perceptible pain due to RF and that RF current preferentially flows through deep conducting structures like blood vessels and nerve fibers:

The reason for the lack of pain is that a human being’s nervous system does not sense the flow of potentially dangerous electrical currents above 15-20 kHz; essentially, in order for nerves to be activated, a significant number of ions must cross their membrane before the current (and hence voltage) reverses. Since the body no longer provides a warning ‘shock’, novices may touch the output streamers of small Tesla coils without feeling painful shocks. However, there is anecdotal evidence among Tesla coil experimenters that temporary tissue damage may still occur and be observed as muscle pain, joint pain, or tingling for hours or even days afterwards. This is believed to be caused by the damaging effects of internal current flow, and is especially common with continuous wave (CW), solid state or vacuum tube type Tesla coils.

So Hamilton’s questions about pain and whimpering are nothing but a smokescreen.

Why his lawyers bailed out

Recall that the two attorneys hired by the insurance company to defend Freshwater in the federal case petitioned the court to be allowed to withdraw from his defense on April 23. Freshwater had some less than flattering remarks about them in the infomercial interview:

I received word from my personal attorney, Kelly Hamilton. These two other attorneys, they are appointed to me, Jason and Bob, these two are appointed [to] me by the school. And on that April 23 I found out that on that federal case that was going to take place at the end of May, it’s going to be a jury trial, I found out that the eyewitnesses, my ten eyewitnesses–if not more, we have more coming–they were not put on the witness list, they never [unintelligible], they never had depositions, from these two attorneys. So they would not be able to come into the jury trial, to the hearing, the federal hearing, which would hamper the case a lot. There’d be a lot of evidence that would not have come out.

I’ll be honest, I was furious. I sat down that evening, wrote a letter, and my wife sat down and kind of looked it over, and we put together a letter and I sent it down to them and also sent it to Cincinnatti to the lady who’s the insurance lady who’s in charge of all of this, that appointed these two attorneys. And it was very pointed that the lack of effort on their part, the .. ah .. not deposing people, really causing my case at the federal level to be hampered, and not be at the level it needs to be. So it was, it was very pointed to ‘em, the poor job that they have done. Ah, they’ve missed a lot of the state hearings [the administrative hearing], they weren’t there a lot. They didn’t speak to me a lot. So whatever that happened I ended up firing them, they didn’t fire me. … The letter was very pointed. I even put the word in there .. ah .. the malpractice lawsuit against them with the lack of their abilities, what they were doing on my case. They seemed to be more interested in the insurance company that they were working for than in my personal well being.


I have the strong impression of a man flailing around trying to find some way out of an insoluble maze, and his only strategy is to strike out at those he sees as opposing him. They’re lying about him, misrepresenting him, maligning him, plotting against him. He repeated the claim that there was a target on him dating from his 2003 attempt to incorporate the Intelligent Design Network’s “Objective Origins Policy” into the science curriculum, ignoring the fact that when this most current debacle arose, only two senior people, Director of Teaching and Learning Weston and Board of Education Member Dr. Margie Bennett, were still in the school from 2003. All the other Board members and senior administrators are new since then. Were Weston and Bennett (herself an administrator at a Nazarene university) plotting against him for six years? Suuuuure they were. And if you buy that, I’ve got a good used bridge for sale. Cheap.