From Mount Vernon, Ohio:
Demonstrations on the town square show how divided people are over the school board's decision to fire a science teacher accused of preaching his Christian beliefs in the classroom and burning crosses on students' arms.
John Freshwater, 52, was fired last month after an outside consulting firm released a report concluding that he taught creationism and was insubordinate in failing to remove a Bible and other religious materials from his classroom at Mount Vernon Middle School.
Some residents consider him a courageous fighter for religious freedom. Others say he has brazenly violated the church-state divide.
"This is going to be a mess," said Dr. Allan Bazzoli, who has written letters to the local newspaper criticizing Freshwater. "Resident against resident, and worse, student against student."
Freshwater's supporters have rallied on the town's square urging school board members to resign. A much-viewed sign about a mile from town reads: "If the Bible goes, the school board should follow."
"The Bible, that should be OK to have," said James Mills, 25, a former student of Freshwater. "Isn't it in the Constitution that we have freedom of religion?"
Mount Vernon, a small city in central Ohio surrounded by farmland, is dotted by churches of just about every denomination. The town has a strong evangelical presence.
Freshwater, who has filed an appeal with the school board over his firing, said Monday he's disappointed with the way the investigation was conducted. His appeals hearing is scheduled for Aug. 26.
"They used half-truths. They didn't interview people who had been in my classroom," he said. "Science teachers at the high school: Why would you interview them?"
Freshwater likely will be suspended without pay during the appeals process, which could extend into the fall, said David Millstone, the school board's attorney.
Messages seeking comment were left with middle school Principal William White and other school administrators.
Freshwater has served as a science teacher and wrestling and football coach in Mount Vernon City Schools since 1987. In their report, investigators noted that some students described him as a great guy.
Some residents blame school leaders for letting the situation come to a boil. Officials knew that Freshwater used a science tool to burn images of a cross on students' arms in December, according to findings by outside investigators.
"I think things were just overlooked and overlooked and overlooked and then it just came to a head," said Kelly Montgomery, whose son was a student in Freshwater's class a few years ago. "It's been terrible for the whole community."
Freshwater told investigators he simply was trying to demonstrate the device on three to eight students and described the images an "X" not a cross. But pictures show the images depict a cross, the report said.
Investigators also found that at least one school administrator dealt with complaints about Freshwater for much of her 11 years at the district.
Jessica Philemond, an attorney for the unnamed student's family that is suing Freshwater and the school district, said that raises some troubling questions.
"I want to find out who had complained, to whom they complained and why for 11 years nothing was done," Philemond said. "They could have taken action a while ago."
Bazzoli and other critics say the public's support for Freshwater may be wavering. A demonstration last month in which supporters urged school board members to resign attracted just 25 people.
"When teachers have a contract, they have to follow the state guidelines, and he deliberately went against the guidelines," said Anita Van Winkle, 57, as she sipped coffee at a cafe near the public square.
Where to begin?
1. He was burning students' arms? He was BURNING. STUDENTS'. ARMS???!!??? I believe this is also known as "branding." And branding is a barbaric practice-- and if you've done this to yourself as an adult, uh, oooh-kayyy, but he was branding middle schoolers. The scars may or may not be permanent: I burned my arm severely in junior high, and it took about fifteen years for that scar to fade.
2. And the school administration tolerated this? The parents tolerated this? I could go on all day about this, but really, what more needs to be asked? Apparently, parents HAD complained about this "great guy's" methods for years, and administrators took no action until now? I am sure he is a great guy. But I would put to you that he is not a great teacher of science. Further, the administrators absolutely mishandled this situation-- and apparently for years.
3. This was an interesting quote by a former student: "'The Bible, that should be OK to have," said James Mills, 25, a former student of Freshwater. "Isn't it in the Constitution that we have freedom of religion?'" First of all, apparently his social studies education was apparently also lacking if he does not know the contents of the relatively short First Amendment to the Constitution, of which this is the very first clause:
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; ...."
To scratch the surface of this, the above clause means that Congress shall not pass any law directing that any particular religion be tax supported (that's what an "established" church is), nor shall Congress pass a law outlawing the practice of any religion. The word "freedom" actually never shows up in this clause. But besides that, one could make the case that a teacher preaching his religious beliefs could be prohibiting the free expression of other religious beliefs. Teachers are enormously powerful influences.
4. I'm sure the case will be made that the majority of people in the town share his religious outlook. This does not matter in the slightest. Even if
only ONE student in his class did not
every student in his class DOES share his religious sentiments, his proselytizing is completely out-of-bounds.
5. How does Mr. Freshwater's teaching of his religious beliefs fulfill the requirements of the science curriculum? See, there are things that are BELIEVED, and then there are things which are subject to scientific proofs. I am a person of faith, and I believe that this wonderful universe demonstrates divine providence and love in every natural law and in every meteor shooting across the night sky and in every toddler taking her first steps. But this is a religious belief-- NOT something that I should be "teaching" in my classroom.
I do have to teach about what various religious groups believe in my history class. But I outline the beliefs, explaining how those beliefs affect behavior (and therefore history) and then off we go to the next topic. Usually my students are unsure of my exact religious background (the Jewish kids often think I'm Jewish, in fact, which I find amusing and a complement).
My own children attended a private school for several years that was run by a denomination to which we do not belong. And yes, their science curriculum was chock full of stuff like this from that hilarious movie Mean Girls: "And on the third day, God created the Remington bolt-action rifle, so that Man could fight the dinosaurs. And the homosexuals. AYYY- MEN!" So I was constantly telling my children, "No, honey, we do not believe that Catholics will burn in hell. No, honey, we do not believe that dinosaurs and men lived on the planet at the same time." But I liked other aspects of the school, so we made the sacrifices and knew what we were getting into. And told my kids to just think for themselves.
Bottom line, though, is this: American students have an absolutely ABYSMAL grasp of scientific concepts in any case. Teach the SCIENCE, Mr. Freshwater, and leave the religious content to their parents and their clergy, PLEASE! And if you find that teaching science violates your conscience, then find something else to do for a living.
Labels: religion in schools, science education