As a general rule, state and federal lawmakers are used to doing whatever they please without being held accountable for their behavior. But when New Hampshire state lawmakers turned a fourth-grade class project into a circus freak show, their actions came back to bite them in a big way. Two weeks ago, New Hampshire legislators treated a fourth-grade class like trash—or worse. This week the “lawmakers” found themselves to be officially eating crow.
It all started with an idealistic attempt to participate in the legislative process, a non-uncommon practice because students study New Hampshire state history and civics in fourth grade. A class from Hampton Falls decided to follow a law through the legislature, starting with creating a bill that would make the red-tailed hawk the official state raptor. They were able to get six Democrats and one Republican to co-sponsor the bill that was listed as “moderately partisan” on the state’s website. The 9- and 10-year-olds from the Lincoln H. Akerman school supported the bill through committee and then traveled 50 miles to sit in the gallery during the debate on the floor of the state House of Representatives.
The partisan element came in when legislators, fully aware that the class was present, were sarcastic and downright nasty. Rep. Christy Bartlett dismissed the bill as trivial and a waste of time, and Rep. John Burt said, “Bottom line, if we keep bringing more of these bills, and bill, and bills forward… we’ll be picking a state hot dog next.”
It wasn’t as if the bill had gone straight from the classroom to the legislative floor: the Environment and Agriculture committee had given the bill a thumbs-up and passed it along to the entire legislative body. Yet legislators criticized the kids and not the committee. New Hampshire has passed lots of other official symbols—bird, tree, animal, dog, insect, butterfly, amphibian, mineral, gem, and two different fish, one freshwater and the other saltwater. Also fruit, flower, and wildflower—you can find out more here. There’s also precedent for a state raptor: Idaho has claimed the peregrine falcon for its official raptor.
GOP state lawmaker, Warren Groen went further in expressing his outrage:
“[The hawk] is known for its extremely strong and sharp talons, with which it grasps its prey. It uses its razor-sharp beak to rip its victim to shreds, tearing it apart limb by limb. I guess the shame about making this a state bird is that it would serve as a much better mascot for Planned Parenthood.”
Student chaperones said that students were confused because they hadn’t yet been taught about abortion and Planned Parenthood.
House Speaker Shawn Jasper did explain that this comment violated the legislature’s rules that state, “No one is to speak impertinently (or rudely).” Groen won’t be censured for his statements, however, because this has to be done at the time of his comments.
Democratic representative Renny Cushing, an original sponsor of the children’s bill, apologized on the floor to students and parents for the behavior of the legislature. He received a standing ovation for his statement, but a minority of legislators shouted “no” to entering his comments into the permanent record.
The bill was defeated by 133 to 160. For the state with a population of 1,326,813, the House of Representatives has 400 members: 239 Republicans, 160 Democrats, and one Independent. Each member represents approximately 3,300 residents.
Groen refused to apologize and indicated that students should not participate in the legislative process. When asked if he thought his comments were appropriate for children, he said:
“I think it perfectly describes how a baby is aborted; it’s torn limb from limb. Every time we’re in session, the gallery is open and there are children in the gallery. So I don’t know, should we limit free speech? Or should we limit who goes in the gallery?”
Like the students who proposed the official raptor bill, Cushing was first introduced to the legislature in the fourth grade. In contrasting this situation, he said, “No one made fun of the legislation. No one mocked me. What I remember is I was treated with respect.”
Cushing’s most recent bill is one that formally encourages student participation in government. The state legislature passed the resolution last Wednesday and announced its intention to bring the raptor bill up for another vote before the end of the current session. Gov. Maggie Hassan will personally deliver the resolution honoring their involvement (if not their right to be treated with courtesy) to the students’ classroom later this month.
Part of the impetus for these actions may have been a segment on John Oliver’s HBO show, Last Week Tonight, when he named the red-tailed hawk the show’s “official raptor.” The satiric website, the Onion, also entered the raptor fray.
School Principal Mark Deblois has received hundreds of emails from around the world praising the students and encouraging them to stay involved. Deblois said:
“We’re always talking to kids about making sure they always take ownership for their actions. It seems that there was some resistance to admitting mistakes were made. And that’s sad. It seems to be something your average fourth-grader understands quite well.”
In a NYT column “Motherlode,” KJ Dell-Antonia listed a few lessons for children (and probably adults) from this experience:
- Politicians waste a lot of time.
- Then they waste more time arguing about the things they believe waste time.
- It might be possible for politicians to waste less time, but if one of them proposes a bill, for example, ending the practice of naming everything from state birds to state hot dogs, another will make it about abortion.
- The best way to get anything done in politics (or to get a visit from your governor) is to draw a lot of attention to an issue, and it doesn’t matter why or how that happens.
Deblois gave another lesson: “I don’t think they realized how ugly politics can be sometimes. They can’t figure out why adults who were supposed to be leaders behaved this way.”
Neither can I.