ConVal’s prom talk stirs controversy from some, support from others 

  • Hancock Patrol Officer John Minichiello spoke about the dangers of drugs and alcohol misuse during a presentation at the ConVal school gym on Tuesday, May 15, 2018. The high school principal sent out an email after the assembly apologizing for some of the comments made during the assembly. (Abby Kessler / Monadnock Ledger-Transcript) Staff photo by Abby Kessler—Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

  • Hancock Patrol Officer John Minichiello spoke about the dangers of drugs and alcohol misuse during a presentation at the ConVal school gym on Tuesday, May 15. The high school principal sent out an email after the assembly apologizing for some of the comments made during the assembly. Staff photo by Abby Kessler

  • Hancock Patrol Officer John Minichiello (Abby Kessler/ Monadnock Ledger-Transcript) Staff photo by Abby Kessler—Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

  • Hancock Patrol Officer John Minichiello holds a binder full of positive messages that were sent to him over a 10-year period when he was traveling to schools across the country talking to students about the dangers of drug and alcohol misuse. (Abby Kessler/ Monadnock Ledger-Transcript) Staff photo by Abby Kessler—Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Tuesday, May 22, 2018 1:52AM

Comments made by a speaker during a mandatory assembly for ConVal High School juniors and seniors as part of prom prep regarding the negative impacts drug and alcohol misuse can have on a person’s life stirred controversy last week.

In reaction, ConVal’s Interim Principal Gib West sent out an email the next day to apologize for the presentation. In the email to students and parents, West vowed to properly vet speakers in the future. 

Hancock Patrol Officer John Minichiello spoke to the junior and senior classes on May 15. His hour-long presentation mainly focused on various difficulties he has faced throughout his life, with an underlying message of the dangers of drug and alcohol misuse, using his own experiences as examples. The assembly also included student volunteers using “Fatal Vision Goggles,” which are used to demonstrate alcohol impairment, while completing a field-sobriety test. The assembly was held days before the school’s prom, which happened on Saturday, May 19. 

“While much of our speaker’s personal story was engaging and addressed the topic of safety and positive choices, it has come to my attention — from students, parents, and teachers — that our speaker made an inappropriate comment about women and that he also spoke briefly about his having found religion,” West wrote in the May 16 email.

In an interview on Monday, Minichiello said he was aware of the principal’s email about the assembly.

Minichiello said one of the complaints made was in regards to something he said about the dangerous situations girls specifically can get into if they are impaired. 

“One of the biggest thing you girls have to look out for is going out with whoever on Friday night, or whatever you’re doing, and, ‘Hey, c’mon, let’s smoke some joints, let’s drink some beer, let’s get stoned, let’s get wrecked,’ and then you’re in a different state of consciousness and doing something you shouldn’t do and you end up getting in trouble,” he said during the assembly.

In an interview later, Minichiello said the complaint about the comment was taken out of context.

He also addressed a complaint made about a portion of the talk where he compared women to cars. Specifically, Minichiello made the comment in reference to his first wife who he said was beautiful, but misused substances.

“She was exceptionally good-looking,” Minichiello said during the presentation. “… The best way I can explain it to some of the guys is you see a Maserati and then there’s a Ford Taurus, you go, ‘Eh, I want the Maserati.’ Then you find out that the Maserati is in the shop every day with all kinds of problems.”

He said he found out that he’d rather have a Taurus that was dependable.

He said he made the reference for people who like cars to understand.

In response to the complaint about religion, Minichiello said he talked about things like the importance of “getting quiet” through meditation and using the Barnes & Noble bookstore self-help section as methods to get through life’s most trying times as alternatives to numbing pain with drugs and alcohol.

“What I said is a lot of people think we’re human beings and every now and then we have a spiritual experience. I said we’re really spiritual beings having a human experience,” Minichiello said in an interview after the assembly. 

He said he also told the students, “that we come from nowhere, we’re now here, and we go back to nowhere.” 

“I said ‘now here’ and ‘nowhere’ are spelled the same,” he said. “That’s all I said.” 

West said in the email that during the vetting process with both local professionals and other schools, “we received no indication that these types of comments were part of the presentation, although the exact quotes were not provided. He assured community members that in the future, the school would “do an even more rigorous job of both selecting our presenters and making sure that they understand our expectations, as a school community and as a district at-large.”

In the email, West said that he would make himself available to apologize directly to students.

Student reaction

Student T.J. Putnam, 17, of Peterborough said he didn’t know anything about the reaction of these students and parents or the email West had sent out until he received a text message from his mother during school May 16. She wanted to know what sexist comments had been made to the students by the speaker. 

“I think Mr. West should have been a lot more clear in the email cause a lot of parents I talked to were like, ‘What the heck did this guy say’?” Putnam said. 

Putnam said he and many of his peers thought the students who complained missed the point of the talk.

“This police officer came into the school and pretty much poured out his heart to the student body and told them a bunch of personal things,” Putnam said. “I just didn’t think it was right that was the only thing they got out of his speech.”

Putnam and some of his fellow students went to West. “We told him it was not the right thing to do since he chose a certain group of people to fight for and left out the opinions and feelings of many other students.”

Putnam said the car comment was “really the only semi-misogynistic thing I heard from him.”

On religion, Putnam said while the officer talked about his beliefs, he didn’t put them on others. 

“He wasn’t trying to force religion on anyone,” Putnam said, but had told students, “He found God through all the hard times he had.”

And while the car comment came off as a bit of a joke to Putnam, to student Miranda Craig,16, of Peterborough it wasn’t funny.

“I really didn't like how he compared women to Ford Taurus’ and Maseratis. Like, ‘If you see the Maserati you’re obliviously going to choose the Maserati over the Ford Taurus. That was so demeaning to women, I feel like,” Craig said. “I personally wasn’t offended by the whole religion thing -- but, like, a lot of people are putting up a big stink about --  because it’s his religion and that’s what he believes and he wasn’t in anyway trying to force it on us.”

Student Cheyenne Heninselmann, 17, of Peterborough said students were expecting a talk about prom and what that would be like, not the officer’s life story. 

“I guess I just didn’t quite understand what he was trying to get across. I know it was a ‘be safe on prom’ night message. But he really didn’t do anything other than talk about his ex-wives. He talked about drug use and all of that, and good, but the way he put it across was really weird,” Heninselmann said. “He went on to talk about drug use and suicide, which can be potentially triggering for some people who have been through that trauma.”

For many students, who had never attended prom before, the talk was confusing, they said. 

“My thing wasn’t that he was talking about the cars and them being like women,” ConVal senior Tori Keenan, 18, of Bennington said. “It was more of the fact that it was a prom thing and he talked about his entire life story instead of talking about prom and what can happened at prom and how it will affect us.”

Student Sean Roberts, 17, of Peterborough said, “He didn't help us prepare for prom. He didn’t help us understand exactly what it’s like.”

Cop’s true-life stories not safe for school?

Minichiello said he hasn’t given the speech in about 20 years, but that the one he gave on Tuesday was the same one he used to give at schools across the country. He said in all of the years that he gave the speech at schools, he never had any complaints.

“None. Zero,” Minichiello said.

He said what’s changed is society, and more specifically political correctness

Minichiello said he thinks it’s important for students to hear “true-life stories.”

“You can’t sugar coat this stuff,” he said.

Minichiello said he gave speeches across the country for about 10 years, and in that time, he received letters from schools from east to west, thanking him for his presentation. He said he’s received letters from schools linking his presentation to a problem-free prom night.

“Your own experiences put a real face on the dangers and pitfalls of alcohol and drug abuse, which the students can relate to more directly than dryly presented facts and figures,” a thank-you note sent to Minichiello in 2001 from the Mercer County Career Center in Pennsylvania reads. 

When asked if the criticism affected him, Minichiello said, “no, it fired me up.”

Minichiello said before the presentation on T uesday, he wondered if he should  go back into schools. Then he looks at the news, pointing to a fatal car accident in East Bridgewater, Mass this past weekend that five teenagers were involved in, and knows that what he’s doing is important.

After incidents like the one in Massachusetts, he said grief counselors come in, but  by that time, “it’s too late.”

 “Prevention is key,” Minichiello said, adding that real-life stories are important.

Minichiello said he plans to  give presentations at schools in Manchester this fall.