Update on Gilford School Situation

The defense of parents to direct their children’s education and of free speech isn’t over in Gilford.

The GSB met last night and announced a new (illegal) parental “opt in” policy for English, social studies, and humanities classes next year.

This is in response to a situation that erupted early last month when a parent, Mr. William Baer, spoke out against a controversial book, “Nineteen Minutes”, that was assigned to his 9th grade daughter’s Honors English class. This book contains a school shooting and a graphic sex scene. The high school principal admitted that the school failed to provide advance notification that this book would be required reading, which had been provided to parents in previous years. Mr. Baer attempted to speak with school officials before bringing it to the Gilford School Board, but was told there wasn’t sufficient time to arrange a meeting. Consequently patience on both sides were already frayed by the time the School Board met. On May 5th, Mr. Baer addressed the School Board and was arrested on charges of disorderly conduct.

The original incident was widely reported across the state and even hit the national news. Our initial post about this event is available here. An unedited video of the May 5th meeting is also available, as well as a statement by Mr. Baer’s daughter.

This situation seems far from over. Mr. Baer believes his first amendment right to free speech was denied when the Board had him removed and arrested at the May 5th meeting. The disorderly chargers still stand.

At the June 3rd Gilford School Board meeting, local parents expressed their frustration about how the Board handled the situation. Many parents stated that they believe Board members were “arrogant.” One Board member countered by saying critics were “disrespectful.” One GSB member, Mr. Kurt Webber, stated that “the right to free speech is not absolute,” referencing that the public may not interrupt a court hearing or a legislative session. He continued: “the  School Board meeting is not an open forum to have an argument,” and that it was an appropriate action by the Board to have Mr. Baer arrested when he failed to obey their rules.

The new parental consent policy announced at last night’s Gilford School Board meeting is a mixed bag. Instead of an “opt out” procedure that required parental notification of any controversial material in the classroom, next year the district will use an “opt in” consent requirement from parents. Additionally, the district will provide a list of all fiction reading materials that will  be used in their English, social studies, and humanities classes prior to the start of those classes. Gilford parents will be able to decide which books their child will read before the classes begin. These are significant improvements in their policy.

If a parent objects to any of the material, parents will meet with the teacher and other school officials to find an alternative. However, the Gilford School Board gives the school final authority in determining a substitute. The new policy further states that parents may not appeal to the School Board if they disagree with the school’s decision. These two provisions are in direct contradiction to the law.

The parental opt-out law, RSA 186:11, section IX-C reads as follows:

IX-c. Require school districts to adopt a policy allowing an exception to specific course material based on a parent’s or legal guardian’s determination that the material is objectionable. Such policy shall include a provision requiring the parent or legal guardian to notify the school principal or designee in writing of the specific material to which they object and a provision requiring an alternative agreed upon by the school district and the parent, at the parent’s expense, sufficient to enable the child to meet state requirements for education in the particular subject area. The name of the parent or legal guardian and any specific reasons disclosed to school officials for the objection to the material shall not be public information and shall be excluded from access under RSA 91-A.

It is clear that the RSA intends to require the school district representative and parent/guardian to reach a mutual agreement. It does not authorize any party to have overriding final authority.

Additionally, this GSB policy specifically denies parents the right to appeal to their elected officials. It is a grave concern that a district and School Board would approve any policy that tries to remove their accessibility or accountability to their citizens.

Also, it appears that this policy change was given little to no public vetting. The Gilford citizens should be given an opportunity to review and provide input on such a significant change.

Further, the GSB member’s comment that “the right to free speech is not absolute” should be immediately and emphatically corrected.

Free speech does not have limits. It has consequences, but not constraints. Free speech is absolute. Restrictions on open, public debate are more akin to a kangaroo court than one appropriate to a representative government.

Public hearings that permit only brief discussion will not adequately address controversial or critical issues. Those are exactly the issues that may need additional time to resolve. Effectively, these speech limits stifle discussion, debate, and the views of the public.

When there are contentious issues, any organization representing the public must serve the public by not trivializing people, their views, or input. It seems the Gilford School Board has lost sight of their proper role as servants to their community.

Additional information about the latest developments are reported by the Laconia Daily Sun and the Union Leader.

Norman Rockwell, "Freedom of Speech," altered
Norman Rockwell, “Freedom of Speech,” altered

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