Wednesday, January 20th, 2010

Ohio Town Up In Arms Over Firing Of Teacher Who Refused To Do His Job: The John Freshwater Story

JOHN FRESHWATERThere was a teacher in my high school, Mr. Johnson. I had him for Current Events class my senior year. He would sporadically stop class and call out "Pop quiz: Who's Catholic?" Then, he'd point to each raised hand and say, "Plus five, plus five, plus five…" He was joking about giving out this Catholic extra credit. Sorta kinda. But he'd give the football players exemptions from homework assignments if they played a good game-for real, and let everybody know about it. He had a mustache and wore polo shirts tucked in too tight. He was one of the "cool" teachers in the school and very popular with the kids. I disliked him strongly, as did a couple of my friends, and we'd talk abut how messed up it was that he taught the way he did. We mentioned this to him, in more polite language, but he'd blow it off, saying everybody knew he was just kidding around. This, despite the very noticeable cross he wore around his neck. Thinking back on it, we've wondered whether we should have made a bigger stink, maybe actually have tried to get the guy fired. Ethically, probably yes. Practically, probably no. As this crazy case being played out in Ohio illustrates, it might have been impossible.

In a public high school in a town called Mount Vernon (That's "Bible-Learnin'" Mount Vernon, in Ohio, as opposed to its money-earnin' sister city here in New York), a man named John Freshwater taught creationism and discredited evolution in science class, healed a student by asking Satan to leave him and ("allegedly") burned crosses into students' arms with a Tesla coil. (The school board has since settled with the burned student's family for $121,000-actually, "$5,500 to the family and $115,500 to the family's lawyers." The family is also suing Freshwater.)

He also handed out surveys asking students about their religious beliefs, directed them to a Christian website called Answers in Genesis, prayed on school grounds and refuse to remove religious materials on display in his room when his principal asked.

"I cannot with a clear conscience follow a directive that makes religion and the religious viewpoint any less credible by those who deem themselves more enlightened," said Freshwater, to the Columbus Dispatch, way back in April of 2008.

Understandably, that June, the school board voted to fire him.

"Under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution to protect against the establishment of religion in the schools," the board said in a statement. "As a public school system the district cannot teach, promote or favor any religion or religious beliefs."

But it has not been easy. Teachers in Mount Vernon are legally entitled to a pre-termination hearing, after which an independent referee will make a recommendation to the school. Freshwater asked for one, and it has been going on for more than a year and a half now. (He is on unpaid leave pending the outcome. He is also suing the school board himself, of course.)

Mount Vernon is a very devout town. Freshwater is popular with students-some of whom rallied to his defense by participating in a "bring your Bible to school" day and wearing T-shirts that said, "I support Mr. Freshwater-God." Many adults in the community, too, are angry at the decision-including an unfortunately named group calling itself "The Minutemen," formed by Freshwater's friends. They have been showing up to board meetings to make their feelings known. Signs have been put up on roads around town threatening to get rid of the school board.

Complicating things, in his countersuit against the school board, Freshwater also named the school board's lawyer, as a matter of intimidation.

"Would our government ask a follower of Islam to remove her burqa in order to teach school?" Freshwater wrote in a statement last year. "Would we ask a science teacher to remove The Origin of Species from his desk merely because the origin of man has never been proven?"

No, not in a class that teaches science, we would not, actually.

52 Comments / Post A Comment

mathnet (#27)

"I support Mr. Freshwater-God" is kind of funny in a Napoleon Dynamite voice.

And now I can't unhear it!

Also, Dave, what's up with this $5-grand-for-the-family, $100-grand-for-the-lawyers bullshit? Was this a class action suit? 'Cause that's pretty much the only way that can happen?

Maybe the actual award was $8,000, and the rest was reimbursement of attorneys' fees. Because that can happen.

Mmmm, good point!
I was just hoping to find the source of this quote in one of the linked articles for background, and I still haven't found it.

(Honestly, though, if the damages awarded to the fam were purely compensatory — as it seems — then I have no idea how the attorneys were able to rack up so much in fees. Also, Dave mentions a settlement? Settlements generally don't include attorney fees — and especially belie such a high amount in fees.)

Dave Bry (#422)

Hey Dorothy.

"The Mount Vernon school board on Wednesday approved a $121,000 settlement with the family of the student identified in the lawsuit only as "James Doe." The agreement would require the district to pay $5,500 to the family and $115,500 to the family's lawyers."

Whoa! Thanks, Dave.
That really is pretty nuts. Doesn't really paint my profession in the greatest of lights, that. And the poor kid & his family? Being run out of town? Yuck.

mountvernon1805 (#3,162)

Contrary to what has been reported by the media, none of the lawsuits have been settled. What did happen was the school board entered into a partial settlement with the Dennis/Doe family. (In exchange for some money everyone's name except for Freshwater's was removed from the lawsuit.) The "settlement" reached with the Dennis/Doe family states that the school is still liable for Freshwater. (See my article, "Media Didn't Tell Whole Story about 'Settlement.'")

NeonTrotsky (#2,249)

This is also where the distinction between the m- and n-dash is significant; for a second, I read this as deification of Freshwater by students, followed by another second of sarcastic mocking of Freshwater by students for claimed infallibility…

KarenUhOh (#19)

"You can't fire me. I'll tell my Dad."

She may not be asked to remove her burqa, but a follower of Islam would probably be sent to prison for a very long time if she burned a crescent and star into a student's arm using tesla coil.

HiredGoons (#603)

I hate to sound like a smug East Coast elitist, but sometimes I just want to let communities like this fester in their own ignorance.

It's shit like this that perpetuates the lack of upward mobility, which perpetuates ignorance and hatred of the 'elite' ad infinitum.

I'm not an elitist. I just don't like dumb people.

HiredGoons (#603)

Also: 'tucked in tight polo shirt teacher' is TOTALLY a type.

Yes, this! I'm not an elitist, I just know what I like. I like smart people.
We're never going to cure stupid (or closed-minded), so there's always going to be a Mr. Freshwater teaching somewhere – complete with a stamp of approval from the community.

I have some experience with Mt. Vernon. It's a sad place, there isn't much for the people there to hold onto, the jobs are gone except for the box stores. Obviously there are a lot of other towns like it in this country, and obviously the ignorance you mention, the hatred of "elites,' comes from somewhere.

Mere dismissal won't work. There is a reason for the ignorance and the hatred, and you and I owe it to ourselves to work beyond a superficial understanding of this situation.

HiredGoons (#603)

I think I have more than a superficial understanding of it, but I know what you mean. I'm not actually dismissive, but it's tempting.

You must admit though there are people who actually enjoy being ignorant and thinking they're right instead of thinking critically, and when you try to reason with them you end up getting tea-bagged and called names.

There is a deep underlying current of distrust, vitriol, and mean-spiritedness that underlies many communities and to call them out on it is to be labeled a fucking communist or whatever.

I think more people than we care to admit enjoy being ignorant, mean, and hurting other people and it's easier to think you're morally superior than to self-examine.

Sorry for the rant.

No, I agree that the behavior is fucking horrendous and disturbing.

HOWEVA, it is a symptom of something else.

HiredGoons (#603)

There is actually REALLY interesting article in this month's Harpers (god, I saw that all the fucking time) about how after World War II, the Atom Bomb, and the Cold War, America became a de-facto Empire run but he National Security community and that the President has far too much power (basically could 'splode the world) and is basically an elected Emperor.

It's very critical of Obama, but also basically says no President could ever change the system now, so m'eh.

Communities seem to be organized around fear, more than anything else and I think this has something to do with it, but I ain't no sociologist.

LondonLee (#922)

Eisenhower (of all people) pointed out what that Harper's article was saying back in 1961


This country is an oligarchy. In towns like Mt. Vernon, once the jobs leave, there is nothing left except things that have no economic capital. Schools are underfunded and they don't provide jobs. People hang onto their religion.

Mt. Vernon is the seat of Knox County; the system of local, mostly white, government they'd had for years and years has been rendered meaningless because the county is now run by the richer interests that have taken control of the state and federal governments.

There is actually a surprisingly wide, lively variety of religious belief (within the mostly Protestant stratum) in Mt. Vernon. It's a trip. And sometimes it manifests in these ugly, ignorant ways.

When I talked to people there, we had to assume our cultural issues were alien to one another. But economic issues are understandable, and they can be used to steer a lot of conversations onto more fruitful paths.

Also, worth noting that Knox County voted for Obama in 2008.

Rw (#1,458)

Not certain I do… By no one's definition am I elite and I don't think it is my responsibility to bring anyone to the "light" of anything. I understand they have their problems and so do I, I say this because I don't think anyone really has a more superficial understanding of the folks we speak of then they do of everyone they do not consider one of their own, Homosexuals, people of color or whatever. Why should we take Jesus' stance on things when they supposedly love him so much and it is we who are supposedly godless? I understand the breakdown and the trouble it's causing us as a country, but maybe it needs to come to a head. I'm straight running out of empathy for the ignorant who alienate themselves with their hatreds and Judgments, I mean if these stupid fucks would actually read their bibles instead of being led through scripture by a neo neo nazi then I think we'd be on the way to something good, but why do I think this won't happen?

@ Rw

Because it isn't about Jesus. Jesus and Christianity are just shared topics of understanding. In Mt. Vernon, the conception of Jesus varies wildly between households, but it is something that the people there still have in common.

In this instance, the argument about evolution isn't really about evolution. It's about power.

HiredGoons (#603)

@LondonLee: I've seen that many times, and while the article definitely is a variation on that theme, there are a number of interesting details which pertain to Obama's ineffectiveness.

I wasn't crazy about him to begin with, but after the election I sort of drank the Kool Aid for a few months, but even at this point I am beginning to feel the man is not particularly as good at governance as he is at campaigning – though in the current political culture you usually have to be better at campaigning than governing to get elected anyway.

HiredGoons (#603)

@ContainsHotLiquid: The right to self-determination even if you're wrong and self-destructive.

Rw (#1,458)

@ Contains, I understand this I use the religion stuff as an example of how unreasonable the religious faction among the folks we speak of are (is?). Power is basically at the root of all human issues in some shape or form and from this distance this is a fight best left to the folks in these locales because they will never admit true intentions, at least not to us and this is a quagmire, I think, that is just not worth the fight.

Rw (#1,458)

worth the fight from us, the people so far away I mean, God bless the folks who have to put up with and fight this loonacy… We got our own stuff to deal with, ad I think the F.B.I watch list should suffice for now.

DigThatFunk (#2,457)

Though I know apathy is one of the biggest problems we seem to face as a generation(but it seems to be a weird sort of apathy—one where, we kick and fight and scream to make it APPEAR that we care, but almost for egotistical reasons. Not enough actually DO, they just say), but I, too have troubles caring about those with their minds so tightly closed. Were it so simple as education, it wouldn't be much of a problem. These people seem to RESIST the ability to fight ignorance. They just cling blindly to their "faith". And we all know what sort of enlightenment THAT's brought to the world! (See also: 'The Dark Ages', 'Spanish Inquisition')

Natan (#1,967)

I grew up in such a town, and I completely sympathize. The words "a horror of upward mobility" often appear in my sentences about my own parents.

The people I graduated high school with who are now teachers were people I didn't imagine would attend college at all at the time. I don't know how it happens–it can't entirely be a matter of pay–but rural school teachers are the bottom of the intellectual barrel.

HiredGoons (#603)

Economic self-flagellation.

metoometoo (#230)

I have a large extended family in Ohio. They are mostly conservative and Catholic. They do things like post Bible verses wishing death on Obama on Facebook. We are not close. To them, I am a snotty elitist because I was raised in New Jersey, am not Catholic, graduated from college, and because I have occasionally criticized their racist, sexist, and homophobic jokes. On his death bed, my grandfather told me that going to college was a waste of time and money, and that to go anywhere besides Ohio State was particularly idiotic. My grandmother is annoyed with me because, at 24, I'm not yet married and pregnant.

Now that I live in San Francisco, it is prohibitively expensive and time consuming to get to Ohio for family events. Which is fortunate for my mental health.

HiredGoons (#603)

Prime example.

mathnet (#27)

"He had a mustache and wore polo shirts tucked in too tight. He was one of the "cool" teachers in the school and very popular with the kids."

Does not compute.

But we certainly had this asshole as well. Nothing religious about him, though, unless you count Skoal. I really wish I didn't, but I have a hard time understanding why anyone not significantly disturbed would be teaching high school for more than a year or two.

HiredGoons (#603)

"have a hard time understanding why anyone not significantly disturbed would be teaching high school for more than a year or two."

Some people can't let go of the apotheosis of their relevance in society.

lotsoftreble (#2,715)

Actual grown-ups, who happen who find it interesting to talk to kids and like the intellectual challenge of a new group of kids every year, make up the majority of high school teachers I would say. You also have a sizable minority of nuts.

KarenUhOh (#19)

It is ABSOLUTELY UNTRUE that he gave communion to the entire pom-pon squad in the backseat of a Dodge Caravan.

LondonLee (#922)

Days like today I feel like moving back to Knifecrime Island.

Natan (#1,967)

I was taught evolution by a woman who would frequently turn away from the chalk board to say with a scrunched nose–"You don't really believe that, do you?" Dinosaurs? "Horse bones." This was sixth grade, and she was also my English teacher. After writing a PROFOUND poem about how maybe "life is just a game," I was called to her desk and interrogated about where and how often I attended church. She was a completely uncontroversial teacher.

Relatively speaking, she wasn't that bad. It was in high school, when all my history teachers were football coaches, that I really gazed into the abyss.

katiebakes (#32)

I enjoyed this comment.

LondonLee (#922)

The mind boggles that in a little town with more than 30 churches and an evangelical university they think Christians are being persecuted.

The feelings of persecution are justified in some areas, mostly economic, but unfortunately have consumed the town as a whole.

Matt (#26)

I hope that when Freshwater's bros make their feelings known they keep in mind that Maybe Partying Will Help.

Do you want New Wave or do you want the truth?

NinaHagen (#131)

"He had a mustache and wore polo shirts tucked in too tight. He was one of the "cool" teachers in the school and very popular with the kids."

We had a teacher like this too – I also really liked the girl he knocked up her senior year.

NinaHagen (#131)

Oddly enough, having watched Inherit the Wind last night (it is Dick York's finest work), Mr. Hagen & I discussed alien life forms. OK – so you are too special to come from a monkey – whatever. I can't wait for some Prawns to land so these people's world REALLY get rocked.

zack petrick (#1,335)

"refuse to remove religious materials on display in his room when his principal asked." What a guy…. I love the whole "The Minutemen". Also how could anyone think a guy who burned a cross into a kids arm be around kids…. or anyone?

HiredGoons (#603)

Hey Zack P!

Mindpowered (#948)

I would have gone retro and done a Hammer and Sickle.

AL (#890)

I can't help but wonder what Mt. Vernon's most famous son, Paul Lynde, would have to say about all this.

tfey_hawbz (#36)

I hope you've seen or will soon see The White Ribbon. To quote Morrissey, "There are some bad people on the rise…"

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