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Mount Vernon schools to hire investigator in Bible case

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Mount Vernon schools to hire investigator in Bible case
Teacher allegedly burned crosses onto students' arms
By Alayna DeMartini

The Mount Vernon public-school science teacher who won't remove his personal Bible from the top of his desk also is accused of conducting a religious "healing session" during school and burning crosses onto students' arms.

Administrators say John Freshwater taught his own religious beliefs in his classes, including describing the meaning of Good Friday and Easter.

An independent investigator will be hired to look into claims involving Freshwater, an eighth-grade teacher at Mount Vernon Middle School, the school board decided today. An administrator will monitor his classes until the probe ends.

The "healing" allegedly occurred when Freshwater was a chaperone for a Christian student-athlete group that met during school hours. A guest speaker visiting the group in January had an illness, and Freshwater called for his healing.

"He said out loud, 'Satan be removed from this man,'" said Jessica Philemond, an attorney representing a Mount Vernon Middle School student who witnessed the event.

The same boy also was among several students branded during a science class in which Freshwater asked for volunteers who wanted to see how an electrical device in his classroom worked.

"He (the boy) didn't know it would be a cross and he didn't know it was going to hurt," Philemond said.

Neither Freshwater nor his attorneys could be reached for comment yesterday.

Dave Daubenmire, who has acted as Freshwater's spokesman, said it was calculating of the Mount Vernon school board to release the allegations about Freshwater yesterday.

"What you're seeing is a classic example of character assassination … to release nothing more than allegations and say now they're going to investigate," Daubenmire said.

The issue of burning crosses onto students' forearms is "an old allegation" that was first brought up in December, and school officials did not act on it at the time, Daubenmire said.

Daubenmire is a former London High School football coach whose district was sued in 1999 after he led his players in prayer at games, practices and meetings.

Philemond said the parents of one of the students who were branded with a cross contacted her when the school board took no action.

Last week, Middle School Principal William D. White told Freshwater to remove "all religious items" from his classroom.

Freshwater agreed to take down the Ten Commandments, posters with Bible verses and Bibles on a shelf. But he refused to remove his personal Bible from his desk.

Superintendent Stephen Short emphasized in a news release today that the allegations involving Freshwater extend beyond that Bible.

"This is not about his personal Bible on his desktop," the release states. "It is alleged he used his classroom to advance religion … We have an obligation to protect our students' rights."

Short could not be reached for comment yesterday.

R. Kelly Hamilton, one of Freshwater's attorneys, said last week that his client considers the Bible an item that brings him inspiration. He compared it to a personal photo that someone puts on a desk at work.

A public-school employee shouldn't have a Bible out on a desk in a classroom because that's incorporating religion, albeit indirectly, into the school, said Ohio State University law professor Daniel Tokaji.

"When he's in the classroom, he certainly has responsibilities … one of which is religious neutrality," Takaji said.

After Freshwater went public with his refusal to remove the Bible, student supporters rallied on his behalf.

Cassidy Garrad, a student in Freshwater's class who was at the rally on Friday, said she considers the teacher a victim.

"I think it's pretty wrong that they're doing it," Garrad said of the school administration's release of the most recent allegations.

"If they were going to do anything, they should have taken him out and told him, instead of making all this news about it, and making such a commotion."



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