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Did Christian Teacher “Brand” His Students?

By Lee Duigon
July 15, 2008

COLUMBUS, Ohio – An Ohio school board has voted to fire a science teacher accused of using a device to burn the image of a Christian cross on students’ arms. [Note the plural—students’.]

The Mount Vernon school board passed a resolution Friday to end the contract of middle school teacher John Freshwater. He can’t be fired until he is given a hearing to challenge the decision. [Sentence first, trial later.]

The instructor is accused of preaching his Christian beliefs and teaching creationism.

A family says Freshwater burned a cross into a child’s arm that remained for three to four weeks. The family has sued the teacher and the school district.

—The Associated Press, June 20, 2008

Consequently, to get rid of the report [that he had ordered the burning of Rome], Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace … an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind.

—Tacitus[1]

“I’m the one who feels branded right now.”

—John Freshwater

It’s the kind of story the mainstream news media love: a crazy “Christian” snaps and starts branding crosses onto defenseless schoolchildren’s arms.

The story quickly moved to radio and television and from there into the blogosphere. Atheist blogs like Pharyngula reacted predictably, as in these two postings on its forum:

  • “That guy is a mad, crazy freak and is harmful to students. It’s just too bad that he’s so popular and that his students are so brainwashed.”
  • “‘That Bible is me. I want my Bible on my desk because that is me.’ [Freshwater quote from news story] Does that also apply to MY copy of ‘Mein Kampf’? Like the Bible, it’s just another historical book full of widely conflicting content, compassion for a chosen few, and hate for everybody else!”[2]

Geraldo Rivera, on his June 21 national TV broadcast, accused Freshwater of “brandishing Bibles,” “teaching creationism,” and “saying gays are sinners,” expressing no skepticism whatsoever as to the truth of the “branding” charge.

But what really happened?

A Rally for a Fanatic?

Because one child’s family has filed a lawsuit in a federal court against Freshwater and the Mount Vernon school district, it’s difficult to get comments.

“My lawyers have told me not to talk about it yet,” Freshwater said. “But you can bet I’m dying to tell my side of it.” All he would say was that the school board’s official investigation of the incident was “full of half-truths” and that he has been the victim of “character assassination.”

Superintendent of schools Steve Short didn’t feel free to comment, either, although he did say, “This is the most difficult thing I’ve gone through in 48 years of life.”

We became suspicious of the AP story when we learned that Freshwater has been a science teacher at Mount Vernon Middle School for 21 years and was the district’s “Teacher of the Year” in 2007, when the “branding” incident occurred.

Research soon turned up news stories from a few months earlier, showing Freshwater embroiled with school officials in a dispute over religious issues.

On April 18 the Columbus Dispatch reported, “Students support teacher by taking Bibles to school.”[3] “Students cheered and offered high fives to Middle School teacher John Freshwater when he showed up yesterday at a student-organized rally in his honor,” the Dispatch reported.

A rally—for a maniac who burns crosses onto children’s arms?

The Zanesville TimesRecorder on April 17 delved into the origins of the controversy.[4] Earlier in April, Mark Caudill reported, school officials ordered Freshwater to remove a “collage” from his classroom window that included the Ten Commandments and to remove his personal Bible from his desk. Freshwater removed the collage but refused to remove the Bible.

Superintendent Short issued a formal statement: “The Mount Vernon Schools has not taken this action because it opposes religion but because it has an obligation under the First Amendment to protect against the establishment of religion in the schools. As a public school system, the district cannot teach, promote, or favor any religion or religious beliefs.”

But of course it does: it promotes the Godless religion of secular humanism, whose scriptures include the works of Charles Darwin. Steve Short—whose eldest son is a worship minister in Kentucky and whose youngest son is studying to be a pastor—knows this.

Asked if Darwin’s Origin of the Species is a religious text, Short answered, “Sure it is.”

The Investigators’ Report

The school district hired an independent private investigator to investigate the complaints against John Freshwater. We read the investigators’ 15-page report and found it a revealing document.[5]

HR on Call Inc. looked into several complaints against Freshwater, including charges that:

  • He “burned a cross into a child’s arm using a scientific machine that caused pain.”
  • He displayed the Ten Commandments in his classroom.
  • He kept Bibles in his classroom for use by students.
  • He led a “healing session” on school property during a meeting of the school’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapter (investigators dismissed this charge) and gave students in the FCA Bibles to distribute to others.
  • He gave students “an extra-credit assignment involving intelligent design” theory (students were invited to watch the movie Expelled and write a report on it).

The investigators interviewed teachers, students, and school officials and confirmed most of the complaints.

High school science teachers interviewed “stated that there should be no instruction regarding creationism or intelligent design or any challenge to the concept of evolution, since it is the underlying principle of all biology taught at the high school level” [emphasis added].

Freshwater “challenged the concept of evolution” by teaching his students to think critically about it, much to the annoyance of evolution’s adherents among the high school faculty. The high school principal, investigators reported, “said that Mr. Freshwater caused issues for her high school teachers in having to re-educate students from his teaching” [emphasis added]. “Dr. Weston stated that Mr. Freshwater has a lot of influence with his students that causes her concern.” “High school science teachers expressed frustration and concern …”

There is much more along these lines. The problem is that Freshwater has been enormously successful in teaching children to be skeptical about evolution, and his Darwinist colleagues can’t handle it.

The “Branding”

But did he “brand” a student with a cross? Or several students, as the AP had it?

The “branding” incident, which occurred in Freshwater’s classroom in December, takes up less than two pages of the investigators’ report, and in the end, investigators said “there did not appear to be any intent by Mr. Freshwater to cause injury to any student,” although “he was not using the device for its intended purpose.”

We will probably not know, until the court case is tried, how one student in the class came to be injured. The investigators’ report says that Freshwater first made “an X on his own arm,” and then several students asked to try it, too. Later, an investigator tried to duplicate the one child’s injury by applying the device to his own arm, but was unable to do so: “[T]he device left a slight redness with no burns, and the redness disappeared overnight.” That’s a far cry from a painful injury that lasted for several weeks.

The device in question is a Tesla coil, a Model BD-10A High Frequency Generator manufactured by Electro-Technic Products, Inc., Chicago, and owned by the school.

As a classroom science prop, the Tesla coil is not uncommon. Units are for sale on the Internet. A typical example is advertised:

“The newly designed Model One Tesla Coil is ideal for homes, classroom demonstration [emphasis added] and is powerful enough to host a wide variety of special effects and experiments.”[6] A new one sells for $895, plus shipping and handling.

The Mount Vernon News sent reporter Samantha Scoles to a nearby Kenyon College laboratory on April 29 “[i]n an effort to further understand how a student of Freshwater’s could be burned during a science experiment.”[7] The laboratory director “said he did not feel the device would cause harm,” although someone with “an extraordinary amount of will” could probably manage to hurt himself with it. The laboratory director said the device was “appropriate” for use in the classroom.

So, although the device is in common use in science classes and generally considered safe, we do not know how a student was burned, nor do we know why other students were not burned in this experiment that Freshwater performed many times during his 21 years at the middle school.

The investigators did conclude that the mark on the child’s arm appeared to be a cross, which they dismissed as “a default pattern.”

Where’s the Fire?

The former superintendent of schools told investigators “that there were no formal complaints against Mr. Freshwater because parents did not want him fired, so there is nothing in writing in his files.”

This sounds suspiciously like, “We can’t show you any smoke, but we know there must be fire.” If Freshwater truly were a dangerous religious fanatic, why didn’t parents want him fired?

Investigators concluded that Freshwater was “insubordinate” for not removing his Bible from his desk; that he did on occasion pray on school property; that he did occasionally discuss religious issues in his classroom; and that he did, once, say that homosexuals are sinners. In the words of the report, he “inappropriately said to his class that science is wrong because the Bible teaches that homosexuality is a sin and so anyone who is gay chooses to be gay … and is a sinner.” But this presupposes that “science” has somehow proved that homosexual behavior is inborn and unchangeable, which is something that no research has ever been able to prove.

The lion’s share of the report is devoted to Freshwater’s real crime, in the eyes of secular “educators”—successfully challenging the concept of evolution.

“John Is a Christian”

Uninhibited by the impending lawsuit, Freshwater’s friend, Christian commentator David “Coach Dave” Daubenmire, head of Pass the Salt Ministries, described Freshwater as a teacher “beloved” by his students.

“His troubles started in 2003,” Daubenmire said, “when he began to teach his students to critically analyze the theory of evolution. This is allowed under Ohio’s education standards, but the science teachers at the high school didn’t like it.”

This was allowed in 2003, the investigators noted, but has since been deleted from Ohio’s education standards.

“The school board revived that complaint about the Tesla coil experiment after he refused to remove his Bible from his desk,” Daubenmire said. “That experiment was done in December, and six months later, it’s news.

“John is a Christian, but he does not burn crosses on children’s arms. He bucked the system, and that’s why they’re dumping all this stuff on him.”

Unanswered Questions

Whatever John Freshwater did with a Tesla coil last December, he did it in front of a classroom full of witnesses; and only one student’s family chose to complain. Maybe the truth will come out in the trial.

Of importance is the fact that the school district has been sued over the “branding” incident along with Freshwater. That alone would provide the district with an incentive to fire him, lest it be implied in court that the district was negligent by keeping him on the staff after a student was injured by him.

Meanwhile, the chronology of the story raises questions.

The “branding” occurred in December 2007. The child’s parents complained, and Freshwater agreed not to perform that particular experiment anymore.

In January the school district got a new superintendent, Steve Short, and the middle school got a new principal, William White.

In April, students rallied in support of Freshwater after he refused to follow school officials’ orders that he remove his Bible from his desk.

Shortly afterward, the parents of the child injured in December filed a lawsuit against Freshwater and the Mount Vernon school district. The school board hired investigators and after receiving their report, stated its intention to fire Freshwater.

Why wasn’t he fired in December or January, right after the “branding” incident? Why are there no reports of any other children ever being burned in the experiment? Why did the injured child’s parents wait several months before filing a lawsuit?

Maybe the trial will answer all these questions.

“Salt and Light”

If we learn nothing else from this incident, it should illustrate for us the futility of Christians trying to be “salt and light” in public education and “working within the system” trying to reform the public schools.

If anyone has been trying to be “salt and light” in public education, it’s John Freshwater. His troubles arose because he was so successful at it. Having taught his students to question evolution, he had to go. The school district is now in the process of spewing out whatever salt Mr. Freshwater brought into it.

Superintendent Short might also have had visions of being salt and light. A Christian man himself, he has been made an instrument of silencing a Christian teacher: but what else could he have expected?

Public education is thoroughly and profoundly secular and anti-Christian, and Christians who work in it have no power to reform it. Their labors would be better employed in building up a nationwide system of Christian education that could rescue all Christian children from the anti-Christian public schools.

Reread the comments made to the investigators by Freshwater’s colleagues. Meanwhile, Mr. Short feels compelled to enforce a warped version of the First Amendment that he knows to be loaded in favor of secularism at Christianity’s expense. You can be certain that if Mr. Freshwater had had a copy of The Origin of the Species on his desk, he never would have heard a discouraging word about it.

Finally, we must ask why, in a country where the great majority of citizens at least identify themselves as Christians, the big-time news media so eagerly seized upon a sensationalistic presentation of this story, complete with the image of a fanatical Christian teacher “brandishing” a Bible as if it were an assegai.

It makes us wonder how they would have reported on Nero blaming the Christians for burning Rome.


Topics: Education, Media / Arts, Science

Lee Duigon

Lee is the author of the Bell Mountain Series of novels and a contributing editor for our Faith for All of Life magazine. Lee provides commentary on cultural trends and relevant issues to Christians, along with providing cogent book and media reviews.

Lee has his own blog at www.leeduigon.com.

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