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Ohio town split over teacher accused of preaching

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

By MATT REED, Associated Press Writer

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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.

(This version CORRECTS spelling of attorney's name to Philemond.)

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