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Arrest brings attention to Picoult book in Gilford curriculum

Last modified: 5/7/2014 10:39:45 AM
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 iwilson@cmonitor.com.)


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