Freshwater Day 15: A Teacher Secretly Tapes Administrators

After a last minute cancellation of the session scheduled for March 20, the hearing on John Freshwater’s termination as a middle school science teacher in the Mt. Vernon, Ohio, school district resumed today. For links to previous posts on the hearing click here.

Testimony today came from Jeff Maley, former Superintendent of the Mt. Vernon City Schools, and Lori Miller, currently a middle school math teacher and formerly a middle school science teacher. Both were called by R. Kelly Hamilton, Freshwater’s attorney, who is presenting Freshwater’s case to not be terminated. The Board’s case was presented in earlier sessions of the hearing.

Jeff Maley Direct Examination

Jeff Maley was in the Mt. Vernon School System for approximately 20 years as an administrator, including around 8 years as superintendent. His son, now 25, was in Freshwater’s 8th grade science class. Maley was a history teacher before moving into administration.

In direct examination Hamilton pressed on the scanty documentation of past problems with Freshwater’s behavior. Maley described the three incidents that he recalled where an issue with Freshwater’s teaching came to his attention. The first was in the early 2000s when a parent complained about the use of inappropriate ID/creationist materials in class. Maley said that was resolved with the then-Principal, Mr. Koons, speaking to Freshwater about it.

The second was in 2003 when Freshwater offered a “teach the controversy” approach for adoption in the science curriculum. Freshwater first made the proposal acting as a teacher to the Curriculum Council, a group of teachers and administrators charged with evaluating curriculum proposals. The Council rejected the proposal, and Freshwater then brought it to the Board of Education in his role as parent of children in the schools. After several months of meetings and comments from teachers, administrators, the public, and Maley, the Board rejected both Freshwater’s original proposal and a weaker proposal moved by one Board member. Maley said he considered that incident to have been resolved by the Board’s action.

The third was in 2006 and again concerned the use of inappropriate handouts. On this occasion Maley wrote a formal letter to Freshwater instructing him not to use unsourced material because being unsourced it could not be properly evaluated regarding whether it was appropriate for use. Maley’s letter also told Freshwater that the material he’d used had not passed scientific review and wasn’t scientifically accepted. This last was on advice from the chairman of the high school science department, Dick Cunningham, and Charles Adkins, another science teacher. Their memo to Maley reporting their evaluation mentioned both the lack of sourcing, the lack of scientific merit, and the fact that the material did not meet the content standards. Maley said he left the latter point out of his letter to Freshwater because the material couldn’t be sourced.

Referring to the lack of sourcing of the material, Maley said, “At the very best the source was left off; at the very worst the source was taken off.” He would not speculate on which he thought was the case.

I found this incident of interest because in making his 2003 proposal to the Board of Education Freshwater also used unsourced material, that time the infamous “Ten Questions to Ask Your Biology Teacher About Evolution.” The copies Freshwater handed out at the Board meeting also contained no source identification, though it exists on the Web in exactly the form Freshwater’s handout had but with a source plainly visible on the top of the Web page. It’s Jonathan Wells’ Icons of Evolution site. Recall that Wells’ book was in Freshwater’s room when it was inspected by the independent investigators in April, 2008. Using material whose source isn’t given or is concealed appears to be a pattern. Recall also that Freshwater couldn’t remember where or from whom he got the “Watchmaker” video that testimony showed he had shown in class.

Asked whether he had conversations with Board members about Freshwater, Maley replied that he had about the proposal Freshwater brought to the Board. Maley recommended against adoption – I was at that meeting and Maley made a strong public statement opposing adoption.

In response to Maley’s letter, Freshwater sent a reply to Maley. The reply included a lesson plan for the week of April 3-8, 2006, in which Freshwater identified the state standards and benchmarks the material supposedly addressed. I got a brief look at that lesson plan. The April 3 entry referred to “irreducible complexity” and “specified complexity,” both of which have meaning only in the context of intelligent design creationism. The Wednesday lesson plan entry, April 5, had reference to “peppered moths,” with no elaboration. That’s another creationist favorite, is featured in Wells’ book, and is #6 on the “Ten Questions” list.

Maley said he did not recall receiving that letter from Freshwater.

Asked again if his only problem was that the material couldn’t be sourced, Maley replied “That’s a huge problem.” Bits and pieces of the handout were found in, but Freshwater denied having been to that site. Maley said he did not speculate on whether that was true or not.

In response to several questions Maley testified that while teachers have considerable freedom in using supplemental materials, that freedom was not unlimited and materials had to support the relevant curriculum content standards. If teachers had questions about some materials they could ask their principal or the Curriculum Council.

In response to another question Maley testified that a science teacher should be aware whether students’ questions about evolution are genuine scientific issues.

Hamilton asked Maley if he had a report of a teacher burning a cross on a student’s arm, would he take the teacher out of the classroom. Maley replied he didn’t know, that it would depend on the results of an investigation of the incident.

Asked whether a teacher’s supervisor should be aware of things like using Tesla coils to shock students, Maley replied that the teacher is responsible for his acts in the classroom.

Maley was shown the pictures of Zachary Dennis’ arm with the red marks in the shape of a cross. In response to questions, Maley testified that if he were told by a parent that a teacher had made the marks with an electrostatic device he would be very concerned, would interview the parents, and would probably call Children’s Services, since it’s required of teachers and administrators (among others) by Ohio law in instances where child abuse is suspected. Maley testified that he leans more toward the liberal end when it comes to reporting such incidents, preferring to report when in doubt rather than not report.

Asked whether his concern would be exacerbated by knowing the teacher was Freshwater, Maley replied “No.” Asked if he would take pictures of the injury, he replied that he probably would have photos taken. Asked if he would investigate if he thought the pictures were not authentic, Maley replied that it would depend on the circumstances.

HAmilton asked if Maley had heard complaints about religion in Freshwater’s classroom. Maley said he had heard second hand reports and knew that former Principal Koons had spoken to Freshwater about it. Maley assumed it had been handled at the building level.

Maley testified that he knew Freshwater was “faithful,” saying Freshwater sometimes wore a religious ring, bowed his head before eating, and so on, all signs MAley took to indicate Freshwater’s religious faith. Asked if he had ever seen Freshwater “impose” his religion on others, Maley replied he had not seen that.

Hamilton asked if he had heard any complaints about religion in the school. Maley replied that at one time FCA members were putting crosses on their lockers to advertise their membership, and he instructed that they couldn’t do so. They could identify themselves as FCA members but couldn’t use religious symbols.

Shown the poster of George W. Bush, Colin Powell, and the rest of Bush’s cabinet in prayer with the Bible verse from James, Maley said it was not appropriate in a classroom. He also testified that having Bible verses posted was not appropriate because “It would be advocating religion.” Maley, a former history teacher, said, “If I put something up in my classroom it’s there to influence students.”

Maley testified that if he knew of a Bible on a teacher’s desk he would ask that it be removed. He said he would also ask that a Koran be removed from a Muslim teacher’s desk. Asked what he would do if a teacher told him the Bible was his inspiration, Maley replied “I’d tell him to put it in his briefcase and be inspired.”

Hamilton then returned to a theme he’s visited repeatedly, asking Maley if by looking at it on a desk, one could tell Freshwater’s Bible is a religious item. Maley said its title is “The Living Bible.” Hamilton wandered off into a thicket of semantics about the metaphoric use of “bible” – could it refer to a “golf bible” or a “mechanic’s bible.” Maley pointed out the differences in meaning in the usages.

Hamilton referred to the Board of Education’s policy on religion in the schools, and asked if having a Bible on a teacher’s desk is “a display of a religious character,” in the words of the policy. Maley replied that it is. Asked who is responsible for seeing to it that Bibles are removed from desks, Maley replied that it was the Principal’s responsibility to the extent of his knowledge of their presence.

Asked who is responsible for interpreting the Board’s policy on religious materials in schools, Maley replied “All of us.”

I found that last answer interesting because a substantial part of Freshwater’s defense is that no one ever told him his religious displays weren’t appropriate, For more on that, see Lori Miller’s testimony below. She had no idea that a teacher praying over students at school lunch or in the hall wasn’t appropriate behavior.

Hamilton asked if a student asked a question about Easter could a teacher answer. Maley replied that he could, but that the answer cannot advocate a particular religious view. He said a teacher’s answer should be limited and that students should be advised to go to their parents with religious questions.

Hamilton asked if a teacher should teach “both sides” of the evolution issue. Maley replied that “You have to stick with the science.” Asked if a teacher could talk about the other side if it isn’t science, Maley replied “Not for very long.”

Hamilton read Maley’s comments recorded in the independent investigator’s notes that Maley thought Freshwater could not teach evolution objectively because of his religious beliefs. Asked the basis for that view, Maley identified interactions with Freshwater during the time of his proposal to the Board of Education in 2003.

In response to a question, Maley testified that he would not be surprised to hear that Freshwater’s students did well on the Ohio Achievement Test (which they did) because Maley thinks Freshwater is probably very good at transmitting information to students. (I actually think this too – it’s just in the area of what creationists call “origins science” that Freshwater has a serious problem.)

Asked why he had entertained the thought of transferring Freshwater to a different class/subject matter, as reported in the investigator’s notes, Maley replied that he felt that Freshwater was too conflicted about teaching science, and in the wake of the rejection of the 2003 proposal to the board Maley was seeking a way to reduce that conflict for Freshwater. Dean Narcisco, reporter for the Columbus Dispatch, caught the whole quotation in his story today:

“I believe that John, Mr. Freshwater, has a strong difficulty resolving his philosophical difficulties with the scientific community,” Maley said. “I respect that struggle, by the way. He is very fervent about the issue of evolution being incorrect.”

With respect to the two “Distinguished Teacher Awards” Freshwater had received, Maley said he started the program in the early 1990s when he was interim superintendent for a while as a way to recognize significant accomplishments in all sorts of activities. He said that there were no criteria for making the award except being nominated, and that he didn’t know who the awardees would be until the banquet at which they were given.

Finally, asked about the old saying “If it wasn’t documented it didn’t happen” Maley said he disagreed, and that “events evolve.”

That was the end of direct and there was no cross examination.

Lori Miller Direct Examination

Lori Miller is a middle school science and math teacher – she used to teach science and now teaches 7th grade math. Her daughter had Freshwater in 8th grade science some unmentioned time ago. She is also (I think) a member of Freshwater’s Assemblies of God congregation.

First, the shocker of the day: Miller testified that after the Freshwater issue arose last year, she began surreptitiously taping meetings she had with administrators. (“Surreptitiously” here means the taping was done without the knowledge or permission of the other participants in meetings.) She said she did it in order to assure herself that she understood clearly what she was to do and understand. We didn’t learn about the taping until part way through her testimony, so there’s more on this below.

As noted, Miller is a co-religionist and strong supporter of Freshwater. She said she supports and encourages him. She testified that she hadn’t read all of the independent investigator’s report because it sickened and disgusted her. She said that she did all the things Freshwater was being disciplined for – she had a Bible and four devotional books (exhibited to the hearing) on her classroom desk, used a Tesla coil to shock students when she taught science, was an FCA faculty monitor, and had religious materials displayed in her classroom, but she wasn’t being disciplined. She named four teachers who have Bibles on their desks in addition to Freshwater. She said she thought Freshwater was being specifically targeted.

Displaying a picture of her desk, she showed that the Bible and devotional books were plainly visible, piled on a corner of the desk. She described religious materials displayed on one quadrant of her classroom bulletin board. They included a cross given to her by a student (roughly 8” high by 5” wide), a “Faith” card, and notes from her husband with Bible verses on them. She had removed those items on instructions from Bill White, middle school Principal, and Superintendent Short before the start of the 2008-2009 school year.

In her testimony she also said that another middle school teacher, Wes Elifritz, a health teacher, had more elaborate religious materials than hers displayed in his room and had not been requested to remove them. She repeated that several times.

Miller testified that after she spoke publicly at the August 4, 2004, Board of Education meeting, telling the Board that she had used the Tesla coil and had other similarities to Freshwater, she was called to a meeting with Superintendent Short, Bill White (middle school Principal), and Brad Ritchie (middle school assistant Principal). She was advised to bring a union representative with her, and there were in fact two reps from the union present. That meeting was on August 24.

Miller taped that meeting, using a small recorder in her open purse. Kelly Hamilton, Freshwater’s attorney, attempted to play the core portion of the tape for the hearing, but his speakers were so bad that the audio was incomprehensible. So playing the tape was called off (rats!) and Hamilton questioned Miller about the meeting.

Miller testified that there were a couple of topics discussed at the meeting. First there was an issue with her continuing contract and a delay in her recertification. That was apparently due to her having submitted the necessary materials to the State DOE late. Apparently in this connection, Superintendent Short raised a question about Miller having taken a sick day rather than a personal day for a court appearance in September 2007, nearly a year earlier but not mentioned until this meeting. Short told her he didn’t want to take her out of the classroom. Her certification was apparently resolved later. (I use “apparently” here because there were elliptical references to “a court case” and “charges were dropped” and the like, and I don’t know the backstory. Yet.) Miller said that Short gave her two weeks to get a physician’s excuse for the day, but he didn’t follow up and she didn’t, either. She thought it was bizarre that the matter was brought up nearly a year after it occurred and in the context of the meeting in which it was raised.

There was some apparently brief discussion of her public remarks to the BoE in early August, though there was little direct testimony about that discussion.

The main topic of the meeting was the display of religious items in her classroom and the necessity to remove them. She testified that despite asking, she never got a clear idea of what a “display” was, and she asked specifically whether it included her Bible on her desk. She testified that she told Short that she wouldn’t take it off her desk, and Short told her that he wasn’t asking her to remove the Bible, but the Board might require it and then she could file a grievance. Hamilton asked if she knew whether Freshwater had ever been advised that he could file a grievance (she had accompanied him to one meeting with Bill White), and she said he had not.

In extended testimony she showed pictures of the religious materials displayed in Wes Elifritz’s room, including several verses from Psalms 37, a poster on memorizing the 10 Commandments complete with mnemonic advice, a poem about Christians and Christ, and the lyrics of the chorus of a “praise and worship song.” She said as far as she knew the display was still there. When asked, she said the items were grouped together for a purpose, a religious display. Also when asked if one had no exposure to Christianity would one know it’s a religious display, she replied “yes.”

She testified that she asked Superintendent Short why she had to take her “less obvious” materials down when Wes Elifritz didn’t have to take his down. She said she didn’t get a clear answer to that.

Miller testified that she had never had any instruction on the First Amendment Separation Clause. Asked if she had encouraged students at school to embrace Christianity before the Freshwater affair began last year, she readily responded that she had done so. She gave examples in an excited voice. She had prayed over students in the halls and lunchroom, had counseled them to seek Christ, and so on. She said, “I honestly didn’t think that was wrong.” She was very enthusiastic in voice and manner about her proselytizing in the public schools.

Questioned about FCA, she said that she had been a monitor up until this last year, when FCA has not been meeting. She, Wes Elifritz, and another teacher whose name I missed have had several meetings this year with administrators, seeking a way to have FCA meet so that teachers could take a more active role, praying with the students and singing with them, rather than being passive monitors. She said “We wanted to be part of it rather than just stand by. We wanted to pray with the kids and be involved.”

She testified that several parents had written to her at the end of the school year thanking her for being a Christian in a public school. She testified that she never thought that sharing her Christian faith with students in the school was a problem.

As far as I can tell, this woman sees the public middle school as a missionary field for fundamentalist Christian teachers – science teachers. In an earlier post I remarked that Freshwater appeared to be running his own little parochial school embedded in the public schools. He’s not the only one. There’s a group of mutually supporting Christian fundamentalists treating the public schools in Mt. Vernon as a venue to proselytize and convert students in (at least!) the 7th and 8th grades. This matter is going well beyond just Freshwater. There are a fair number of parents here who would be a whole lot less than enthused about having their children in a Fellowship of Christian Athletes in which the regular and dominant adult/teacher presence was actively involved fundamentalist proselytizers and missionaries.

Asked if she is aware of the Board’s “Controversial Issues” policy, she responded that she is not. Asked if she is aware of the Board’s policy on religious issues, she responded that she is not.

Shown the pictures of the injury to Zachary Dennis’ arm, Miller testified that she had never seen that produced by a Tesla coil when she used it in science class in the 1990s. She thought it was either “self induced or from something else.” She testified if she saw an injury like that on a student it would have to be reported to Children’s Services.

Asked about former middle school Principal Koons, Miller testified that he was a strong leader and that he made things clear. He had once admonished her not to wear an FCA t-shirt and to not play music of “praise and worship” in the school. She testified that he told her that he had strong faith and that his admonishment was not personal.

Asked about him, she testified that Freshwater “has an absolute God-given talent for teaching kids.” She described how Freshwater is outside his classroom door just before each class, and greets each student as he or she enters. She testified that when she was teaching 7th grade science, at the beginning of each year she would meet with Freshwater and he would ask her about every kid to find out what ‘hooks’ that student, what would draw the student into participation and learning.

Asked if a teacher should point out when a text was wrong, she replied yes. Had she ever done that? Yes, she said, once the science text had the weight of an ostrich egg wrong. And occasionally there are math errors in her math texts.

Asked if teachers could teach beyond the standards, Miller replied that they could and that she was doing so, currently using an 8th grade math book for a class of advanced 7th graders.

Lori Miller Cross Examination

Cross examination was fairly brief, and will be continued tomorrow after David Millstone, the Board’s attorney, has had an opportunity to listen to the audio file of Lori Miller’s recording of the meeting described above.

Millstone asked Miller if her use of the 8th grade text is part of a curricular program for advanced 7th grade students. She replied that it is.

Millstone asked if Miller had ever observed Freshwater teaching. She said she had. Asked for how long, she replied “Just moments.”

Millstone asked if she had asked anyone if she could tape the meetings. She replied she had not. Did she tape without informing anyone? She replied she had not informed people she was taping, and that the recorder was in her open purse.

Hamilton objected at this stage, arguing that the questions gave the impression that the taping was illegal when in fact under Ohio law there’s no requirement for other parties to be informed they’re being taped. Millstone ended that line of questioning, having made his point.

Millstone asked about the state DOE’s hold on her teaching certificate, and again there were some elliptical comments about the state needing to get some additional material to process her application, and “there were some charges that had not been dropped and the state had to wait for that.”

Asked if she still prayed with students in school, she said she does not, and has not done so since the Freshwater affair began last year.

She testified that she last used in the Tesla coil on students in 2000, the last time she taught science. She described her use as just touching students’ arms with the arc momentarily, just “a fraction of a second if that.” Students also held hands and she shocked one end of the chain so students could see the electricity was conducted to the last student in the chain. She said that she was instructed in the use of the Tesla coil by Jeff George, a now-retired science teacher, and that “if veteran teachers were using it, it was O.K. for me.”

She repeated that she and Wes Elifritz were seeking ways they could become more actively involved in FCA meetings. One strange proposal was to have a “normal” FAC meeting with teachers passively monitoring from 2:30 p.m. (end of students’ day) and 3:00 p.m. (end of teachers’ contract day), and then an active involvement of teachers from 3:00 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. after the teachers’ contract day had ended; this, of course, on school property. She said they had also thought about renting space at the school out of school hours.

The hearing was recessed at this point and will resume tomorrow morning.