By Eric Geller
It’s not often that local school board proceedings make the national news, but that’s exactly what happened on Jan. 13, 2011, when the Mount Vernon City Schools Board of Education voted 4-1 to terminate eighth-grade science teacher John Freshwater for introducing creationism into his biology classes.
After Freshwater appealed his termination through the lower courts and lost, he brought it to the Ohio Supreme Court, which is expected to issue its decision imminently in the hybrid freedom-of-speech and wrongful-termination case.
The Mount Vernon Board of Education’s 4-1 decision found Board President Margie Bennett and members Jody Goetzman, Paula Barone and Sharon Fair voting for termination, while member Steve Thompson voted against the measure. Bennett and Thompson declined to comment for this article, citing the ongoing nature of the legal matter.
Freshwater’s dismissal brought widespread attention to a local controversy over religious education in public schools that began almost a decade ago. In interviews with the Collegian, Kenyon professors recalled following the story over the years as it evolved from a rejected intelligent design curriculum into allegations of physical violence against students.
Between 2002 and 2003, Freshwater petitioned the Board of Education to adopt a lesson plan based on materials from the Intelligent Design Network, an organization dedicated to promoting creationism. Freshwater’s proposal “was turned down by the District’s science curriculum committee, and then was turned down by the Board,” said Richard Hoppe, an affiliated scholar in biology at Kenyon, who has written extensively about Freshwater’s case for The Panda’s Thumb, a science education blog.
After the last set of allegations about Freshwater’s conduct surfaced in 2008, Hoppe attended 38 of the 40 public school board meetings leading up to the 2011 termination decision. He also taught an interdisciplinary studies course at Kenyon about the conflict between creationism and evolution.
“The materials he used in support of that proposal were classical intelligent design creationism materials,” Hoppe said. “It didn’t surprise me when some of the allegations later were that he taught using those kinds of materials.”
Professor of Biology Wade Powell said Freshwater “was teaching creation science ﾗ and the fashionable version of it at that time was called ﾑintelligent design’ ﾖﾖ and it coincided with some battles that were being fought at the level of the state board of education about the standards for Ohio education.”
“At that time,” Powell said, “my big concern, since I had children younger than middle school who were coming up to it, was that he was essentially introducing religious teaching into the science courses.”
In addition to teaching creationism in classes about evolution, Freshwater allegedly branded a cross on a student’s arm using a scientific instrument called a Tesla coil.
Witnesses offered conflicting testimony about the details of this incident, although Hoppe said that “it was clear that Mr. Freshwater used the Tesla coil to shock students.”
R. Lee Shepherd, the referee whom the board assigned to the case in a fact-finding capacity, did not include that charge in his January 2011 report recommending termination, noting that it had been addressed by administrative action.
The Kenyon biology professors interviewed were unanimous in identifying what they considered to be the reason for the controversy surrounding Freshwater’s case.
“This is a very conservative religious community,” Powell said. “A lot of people get caught up in their majority status and fail to really think about what it must feel like for other people to have folks in power dictating what is common and acceptable in terms of religious practice.”
“Knox County is a place where there’s a lot of religious fundamentalism. ﾅ The fact that there’s controversy is shown by the number of people who are supporting Mr. Freshwater. But it’s not a scientific controversy,” Professor Emeritus of Environmental Science and Biology Ray Heithaus said.
Freshwater’s case strikes at the heart of science education in the United States, and the professors noted that it highlighted disagreement over what form science education should take.
“Some of the conclusions of science make people with certain religious beliefs very uncomfortable,” Associate Professor of Biology Andrew Kerkhoff said. “It’s understandable, but that doesn’t mean that those observations and conclusions aren’t correct.”
Kerkhoff said the Freshwater case illustrated a challenge facing science educators as they communicate their goals and methods to the public.
“Mr. Freshwater’s point of view is one that’s detrimental to science education,” Kerkhoff said. “Yet for 20 years, he was a very popular science educator within the public school system. That tells us what a difficult problem this is.”
Hoppe related an incident from the administrative hearings where a student witness, when asked what he had learned about science from Freshwater’s class, reportedly replied, “I learned that you can’t trust scientists. Scientists don’t know anything. You can’t trust science.”
“That was the most striking and disheartening thing,” Hoppe said. “You can’t trust science.”