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Arrest brings attention to Picoult book in Gilford curriculum

Before a dizzying series of events that included national media attention, a public apology from school officials and the arrest of a man during Monday’s Gilford School Board meeting, Becky Ortin’s 15-year-old daughter came home April 28 with a reading assignment.

It was Jodi Picoult’s Nineteen Minutes, an award-winning novel based on a school shooting in a fictional New Hampshire high school. The novel contains depictions of physical violence in public schools and a scene of graphic sexual activity, and it has been a reading selection available to Gilford High School staff since 2007.

“I had read three or four of her books, and she can be a very controversial writer. I don’t care for some of her subject matter. That’s just my opinion,” Orton said yesterday. The book was a reading assignment in her daughter’s freshmen English class, Orton said. “She said, ‘I don’t really want to read it, Mom. I don’t feel comfortable.’ I was totally fine with that.”

Orton contacted the teacher, who said the school had alternate reading assignments to replace Nineteen Minutes.

Orton’s discussion came days before Monday’s school board meeting, during which 50-year-old William Baer blasted the school district for giving students – including his daughter – a book with what he described as pornographic material.

Baer was eventually charged with disorderly conduct and escorted from the meeting, the Gilford police said. “He was arrested for interrupting the business meeting and the school board after being directed to stop disrupting and refusing to do so,” said Lt. James Leach, acting Gilford police chief.

Leach took Baer into custody and handcuffed him outside the meeting, which continued after the arrest. “Did he cooperate enough that there didn’t have to be anything dramatic? Yes,” Leach said. Baer was released on $700 personal recognizance and is scheduled to appear in court June 17.

During the meeting, the board heard from administrators, parents, students and community members about the Nineteen Minutes assignment. Afterward, high school Principal Peter Sawyer personally contacted more than 100 parents whose children were given the book, Gilford Superintendent Kent Hemingway said. Eighty percent of those parents consented directly, 10 percent said they didn’t want their child to read the book and 10 percent were undecided.

About eight to 10 students were given alternate assignments, but Nineteen Minutes will not be removed as an option for teachers, Hemingway said.

“There are always alternate reading assignments available to students,” he said.

In an email to the Monitor, a spokeswoman for Picoult said the book has been recognized nationally and was the recipient of the Flume: NH Teen Reader’s Choice Award sponsored by the New Hampshire Library Association. “The book is about bullying in a high school community, which escalates into an act of school violence,” said Susan Corcoran, director of publicity at Ballantine Bantam Dell/Random House publishing.

In Connecticut, the Department of Education created a discussion curriculum around the book for its teachers. It is taught in dozens of high schools across the United States, Corcoran said.

Picoult met with Gilford students in 2007 when the book was published.

“I gave a talk to students about the research I did with survivors of school shootings, and that was followed by a wonderful, spirited conversation about how to end bullying in their own school community,” Picoult said in a statement to the Monitor. “The works of fiction included in school curricula are meant to encourage and develop critical thinking skills in adolescents. I would encourage any parent to read whatever books are assigned, and to use them as springboards for discussion with their children.”

Joe Wernig’s daughter was a freshman at Gilford during Picoult’s visit. “She had the chance to discuss the book and the rationale for choosing those topics,” Wernig said yesterday. “It was a great experience for her.”

Wernig reiterated comments he made during Monday’s meeting in support of assigning the book. “It opens the door to discussion. The more discussion the better,” Wernig said. His daughter is a senior at Gilford now, and she read the book on her own time before her freshman year. She didn’t question him about the graphic sexuality, but wanted to talk about the bullying and school violence included in the book.

“Some of it can be disturbing, and I hope my daughters found it disturbing. I would be worried if they didn’t,” Wernig said.

The school district has acted swiftly since some parents’ concerns were brought to their attention, Hemingway said. “We’ve tried to be as transparent as possible through all of this,” he said yesterday. Informational notices were sent home with students and posted on the district website before and after the meeting.

Though the book has been an option for teachers since 2007, this is only the third time it has been assigned, Hemingway said. In previous years, the school sent home a parent notification before the assignment. The notification this year went out Monday, after the book was given to students.

“The board apologizes for the discomfort of those impacted and for the failure of the school district to send home prior notice of assignment of the novel,” Allen said in a statement after Monday’s meeting.

The district has policies in place for the use of novels containing potentially controversial material. “The district will take immediate action to revise these policies to include notification that requires parents to accept controversial material rather than opt out,” Allen said. “Furthermore, the notification will detail more specifically the controversial material.” The policies will be revised before the 2014-15 school year.

(Iain Wilson can be reached at 369-3313 or

Legacy Comments11

Relax Gilford and don't worry that academically your high school rates among the lowest schools in the United States and don't worry that only 44% of the kids in school are proficient in math, don't worry that Great Schools says your school is rated a 6 out of 10 (that's a D grade btw). You guys just keep on doing what you are doing, after all your district elementary school has clawed its way to a 5 out of 10 in the last few years so you must be doing something right with those kids. I say if you have to use porn to get those kids reading then by all means carry on, double down, don't let parents or decency get in the way of your mission to take Gilford High all the way to 7 out of 10! BTW - props for creative use of the local police force, its great that you guys can count on your local cops to rush right in and shut off discussion in a public meeting the second your politicians become the least bit uncomfortable. That kind of cooperation and efficiency we haven't see since the Iron Curtain fell (oh, sorry to bring up a sensitive issue, the nostalgia for those good old days must weigh on you) So carry on I say, after all america's next generation will need well prepared people to work in the strip clubs, deliver pizza and do porn.

MASSIVE HYPOCRISY ... that liberals are freaking out about the name of a football team - The Washington Redskins ....yet they watch as a man gets arrested for voicing that it is offensive to him for his child to be reading pornography in liberals classroom .

I have read this book, and I found it to have an excellent message about bullying, teaching, and how to help someone who is clearly a victim. I think that every teacher should read this book. That being said, I am an adult and I have the ability to make informed choices about what I read and the moral messages I take away from those stories. Would I be uncomfortable with my 13-14 year old child reading this book? Yes, I would. I think that what everyone is so upset about is not necessarily the book's content, but the fact that the school unilaterally made a blanket decision that this material is appropriate for everyone and did not take into account how parents feel and what their individual values are. To use the argument that "all high school students know about this stuff anyway" is a generalization, and follows the same logic that there should be condom machines in high school bathrooms and parents should provide alcohol at parties taking place at their home. The subject matter in Nineteen Minutes may be completely appropriate for some students, but others may not have the maturity or emotional stability to handle such material. The school board has even acknowledged that they made a mistake in not informing the parents that this book would be read, and then allowing each parent to make the decision that their child could read/discuss this material. I know how I have raised my children, and I know that they would not be ready, at their ages, to discuss this kind of intense subject matter. My daughter would be fearful at school and I do not want that....but that doesn't mean that another student would not benefit from reading this story. My point is that the Gilford School Board showed disrespect for parents by not informing them about a controversial book being read in the classes (and they have even acknowledged this). What did they expect...of course people are upset now, that man should not have been arrested...that only makes the situation worse.

As a 9th grade English teacher with a B.A. in Literature and a M.A.T. in secondary English, I will say this is a fluff book. The author capitalized on "timely" subjects of the day and threw in some controversial topics and graphic sex scenes for shock value. In twenty years time, no one will read this book.

I always find it interesting how people get highly disturbed by depictions of normal, healthy, consensual sex, but have no problem at all with violence, killing & gore in movies and video games. When we can't talk to teenagers about how normal consensual sex looks, and choose to say nothing about all the violence, then it should not surprise us when we hear statistics that 1 in 4 women (and 1 in 10 men) have been sexually assaulted by the age of 24.

I guess none if these students have read DH Lawrence or even Peyton Place, I hope they don't watch tv either, some of those sexual enhancement ads can get pretty dicey.

Watch the video and then tell me how this guy was disruptive. The board member pressed her button for the cop to have him removed, because she wanted the discussion stopped, period. So much for the myth that school board members want to hear from the parents. They complain parents are not involved, and when they are, they get arrested. Picoult's books are fluff books. Books you read that do not require being challenged in the thinking dept. Beach books. The book was selected because it was about bullying and a school shooting. The fact that it has graphic sex scenes in it obviously was something the teachers and the school board were hoping to hide. Otherwise they would have sent out a note to the parents, but they used the "oh we forgot" excuse . They did not forget. They were most likely aware that some parents would object and did not want to deal with being questioned. So when they are held accountable, they will shut you down and have you removed. You got two minutes folks, that's it.

It's a brilliant book by an acclaimed writer. Not only should it be available for reading, it should be a must read in schools. Too many students are killed or harmed every year. We need to realise kids live in the real world, one we've created, where guns are cheap and easy to obtain. That... is the real pornography, not a writer trying to convey a sense of life at that age. My gosh, I wish parents would get this riled over the bullying that takes place in schools.

It's not the bullying that has the parents riled up. It's the part that has explicit sex. So far I have not seen any TV station, or newspaper, willing to mention or print that part of the book.

If I had been the parent, I would have stood up and read the passage out loud at the meeting. Folks there would have thought I was reading from a trashy adult novel.

You probably would have been arrested.

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