Mount Vernon school district learning the hard way to nip problems in the
Wednesday, January 7, 2009
"Supporters of fired Mount Vernon Middle School teacher John Freshwater are
right about one thing: It's a shame the school district has spent $200,000
to date to defend the firing.
Since the Mount Vernon City Schools Board of Education voted in June to
fire Freshwater, the district has racked up legal expenses. The appeal
hearing, to which Freshwater is entitled by state law, began in October and
has been delayed two months by attorneys' scheduling issues.
This is an expensive lesson.
The unfortunate experience should be a cautionary lesson to other school
districts dealing with teachers whose personal beliefs get in the way of
their responsibility to educate: Don't look the other way for years, even
if the teacher is well-liked and personable. The mistake was not in firing
Freshwater but in waiting so long to do it.
Freshwater, who was hired to teach science, lost his job because an
independent report concluded that he pushed his Christian beliefs onto
students in his classroom and that he used an electrical device to burn
marks onto students' arms.
Though Freshwater says the marks were meant to be Xs, branded students say
they were to represent crosses.
The complaint of the "branding," brought by one student's parents, was
shocking, but it wasn't new to school officials; neither were the
complaints about Freshwater's religious comments nor, most important, that
he used a science classroom to promote nonscientific, religiously based
ideas of creation.
The controversy gained notoriety last spring, when Freshwater defied orders
to remove a Bible from his desk and other religious items from his
classroom. His popularity throughout the case has been evident. Some
parents and students have denied that he pushed his religion on anyone;
others have said that, even if he did, he was representing the beliefs of
most people in the school district.
Even if that's true, it doesn't excuse Freshwater's actions. All
public-school students are entitled to education free of religious
indoctrination, yet he told students that homosexuality is a sin and
declared that some non-Christian religions are false. He told his students
that the law required him to teach the theory of evolution but that it
can't be true because it isn't supported by the Bible.
A high-school teacher testified that she often had to re-teach the basics
of evolution to students who had been in Freshwater's classes, for fear
that they would fail that part of the state proficiency test.
Parents had been complaining of Freshwater's proselytizing for at least 11
years. If officials had reined in his behavior when it first surfaced,
perhaps he would have been more likely to respect his bosses' orders to
stick to science.
Allowing him to become entrenched made a warranted dismissal much harder.
The supporters packing the hearing room where Freshwater's appeal is being
heard show that he has lots of community support. That suggests he could
build a career as a motivational speaker, an activist for Christian causes
or a teacher in a religious school.
But his demonstrated disregard for science, not to mention his poor
judgment with the electrical device, disqualifies him to teach in public
Other school districts with budding John Freshwaters should take heed.
Confronting a popular teacher is controversial, but preserving sound
education is essential."
If you were on the school board 11 years ago, what would you have done?