Cross-Burning Hearing Ends, Trial Set to Begin

In what has been quite the cluster…erm…mess, Mt. Vernon, Ohio middle school science teacher John Freshwater’s termination hearing finally ended last week. The hearing, which Freshwater requested in response to the district’s attempt to fire his butt for burning a cross into a student’s arm with a Tesla coil—as well as his ongoing attempts to teach creationism and his refusal to remove religious posters and other items from his classroom—has been dragging on since October 2008.

The attorneys have until July 26 to present briefs that will serve as their final arguments. They then have until Aug. 2 to respond before the referee reaches a decision.

As always, Richard Hoppe, over at Panda’s Thumb, has the most comprehensive accounts of the debacle, which first began in December 2007 when Zachary Dennis came home from school with a burn mark on his arm in the shape of a cross. His parents visited the school, looking for answers. When they felt they didn’t get them, they filed suit against both the Mt. Vernon School District and Freshwater. The district settled with the Dennis family last summer, although the suit against Freshwater awaits.

Meanwhile, a federal judge in the civil suit against Freshwater issued an order last week directing Freshwater’s attorneys to turn over billing records related to time spent preparing affidavits related to an interview Freshwater was to have had with investigators. Apparently, the Freshwater team has been less than forthcoming at turning over documents related to discovery and appears to have gone to great lengths to avoid providing the material. R. Kelly Hamilton, Freshwater’s attorney, said he could not turn over billing records requested by plaintiffs, because a pipe burst and destroyed the laptop where the records were kept. When plaintiffs requested a hearing to discuss sanctions, Hamilton was unable to attend the meeting because he had not one, but two flat tires.

The trial is scheduled to begin July 26.

I’ll be honest, every time I think of the case, I just feel sad. From the moment Freshwater feared losing his job, he has tried to present himself as a martyr to religious discrimination. He has argued that the case has been about the fact that he kept a bible on his desk. (In their lawsuit, the Dennis family never mentions the bible, nor was it an issue in their initial complaints to the school district.) Every step of the way, Freshwater and his lawyers have wrapped the cases in obfuscation and paranoid accusations of “being set up.” By the time the hearing is over, it is likely it will have cost the tiny school district almost $1 million. Also, his supporters have accused the Dennis family of making up evidence by altering a photo of Zachary’s burned arm.

Coach Dave Daubenmire, the creator of the Mt. Vernon’s Minute Men United, a militant organization that endorses Christian theocracy, and one of Freshwater’s most active supporters, told me in a January phone interview, “That is not the arm of Zachary Dennis, or if it is, it was not a mark left by John Freshwater.” When asked to clarify, Daubenmire at first denied he was accusing the Dennis family of lying. Then he accused them of being in it for money. Then he wanted to know if I was a Christian.

In short, Freshwater and his supporters have done everything but accept personal responsibility for his actions.

I have not spoken to Zachary’s mother Jenifer about this (The judge has issued gag orders in both the termination hearing and the civil case.) but with the trial still weeks away, I wouldn’t be surprised if she has grown so weary with the personal attacks made on her family and the amount of time, effort and money that has gone into this case that she regrets ever raising an objection about her son’s burned arm.