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Four years after failure, New Hampshire middle school students revive "red-tailed hawk" bill

  • Eighth-grade students at Lincoln Akerman School in Hampton Falls appear in Concord to support a bill designating the red-tailed hawk the official state raptor. In 2015, a bill that the class championed as fourth graders failed on the House floor, attracting national attention. Ethan DeWitt—Ethan DeWitt

Concord Monitor
Published: 3/5/2019 10:06:10 PM
Modified: 3/5/2019 10:06:16 PM

It was a debacle destined for the national stage.

A group of school children went to the New Hampshire State House, awaiting a vote on a bill they helped draft. But the legislation, which would have designated the red-tailed hawk as the state raptor, was quickly torn asunder on the House floor and defeated, after lawmakers call the bill unnecessary and the bird violent, with one representative famously saying it would make a better mascot for Planned Parenthood because it tears its prey apart, “limb from limb.”

The unusual manner in which the bill was killed in 2015 event, by a vote of 133-160, quickly leapt to national news networks, late night comedy shows, and State House lore.

But for the former fourth-graders of Lincoln Akerman School in Hampton Falls, the story is not yet over.

On Tuesday, members of that class returned to see their efforts renewed, appearing at a hearing in the House Environment and Agriculture Committee to support a new bill to honor the red-tailed hawk.

The group, now in eighth grade, is hoping for a fairer hearing.

“Four years ago our bill was defeated,” the students said in remarks to the committee. “Like the red-tailed hawk, we are determined, patient, and strong. We are here today because we believe in what we’re doing and feel that this beautiful bird deserves a place on New Hampshire’s state symbol list.”

Soon after the hearing, the committee gave a positive sign, voting 20-0 to recommend the bill, House Bill 280, ought to pass. A half dozen students looked on from the front row.

Each wore a T-shirt: “Our Second Try to Live Free & Fly.” A picture of the hawk proudly took center stage.

For many of the students, it’s been a surreal four years. Ahead of submitting the bill in 2015, the class of 9-and 10-year olds did its homework, picking the red-tailed hawk over the peregrine falcon for its local roots. It was fierce, like the state, and more universally recognizable.

“The more we researched the more we were sure that this was the right choice,” student Grace Vander recalled.

At the time, the comments from lawmakers – most notably former Rep. Warren Groen who compared how the bird would “rip its victims to shreds” to accused practices at Planned Parenthood – went over the kids’ heads. Now, with a better grasp of what exactly happened, they’re eager for vindication.

“We were really hopeful that it would pass, and when it didn’t that was all we could focus on,” said Adelaide Kinnaly, another student. “We didn’t really understand the comments made.” This year, she added, “we came back at it like, well, now we want to prove everyone wrong.”

Jim Cutting, the fourth-grade teacher that led the 2015 effort, was back in the Legislative Office Building too on Tuesday. For Cutting, the 2015 vote was more than a little shocking. Even without knowing the meaning behind some of the comments on the floor, the kids could tell when they were being mocked, Cutting said.

“They kind of read body language and they read tone of voice, and they read sarcasm,” he said. “That was the part that they were understanding.”

But back in the classroom, Cutting quickly turned the defeat into a teaching moment of the value of perseverance – about giving a good try and sticking oneself out there regardless of the result.

“It was way more valuable than anything I could have imagined,” Cutting said. “It was way more bumpy. But learning can be messy sometimes.”

Now, Cutting and the eighth-grade class are hoping for a more positive result. And they’ve pulled together a battle plan: a series of talking points and rebuttals to likely attacks.

Are raptors too aggressive? Nonsense, the students say; the bald eagle is the national animal of the United States.

Would the addition overburden the state? No way, said student Andrew Kriner. New Hampshire already has numerous designations, including ten state songs, he said. And none of New Hampshire’s state animals are unique to the state the way the red-tailed hawk is, he added.

Above all, though, the students say their argument is positive and backed by search. But this time, they’re not making any assumptions.

“We just need to expect anything,” said student Daniel Blankenship. “We can’t go into it being too confident or cocky, we  just have to like, expect it not to pass, and if it doesn’t we can’t be too upset.”

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