March 31. 2015 9:12PM

Governor apologizes to fourth-graders for raptor bill comments

Union Leader Correspondent

Fourth-graders at Lincoln Akerman School listen as Gov. Maggie Hassan reads a resolution from the House recognizing their efforts. (Jason Schreiber)

HAMPTON FALLS — Gov. Maggie Hassan paid a visit to Lincoln Akerman School Tuesday morning to personally apologize for critical comments made by some state representatives when they defeated a bill proposed by fourth-graders who wanted to make the red-tailed hawk the state’s official raptor.

Surrounded by students who dressed up for the occasion, Hassan praised the kids and read a House resolution commending them for getting involved in the legislative process.

The visit followed a highly publicized flap over the bill presented by eight fourth-graders on the House floor on March 12 as part of an educational experience.

The vote to kill the bill and the way the students were treated grabbed national headlines after state Rep. Warren Groen, R-Rochester, brought abortion into the debate, saying the red-tailed hawk “grasps (its prey) with its talons, then uses its razor-sharp beak to basically tear it apart limb by limb, and I guess the shame about making this a state bird is it would serve as a much better mascot for Planned Parenthood.”

Others argued bills like the one proposed by the kids are a waste of time.

Hassan wasn’t happy with the remarks, which stunned many parents.

“We felt that the way that the adults behaved was not appropriate. We wouldn’t want our own bills to be discussed the way that they discussed your bill. They shouldn’t treat other adults like that, and they shouldn’t treat you like that and both the House of Representatives and the Speaker have spent some time over the last week indicating that they were disappointed in the tone of the discussion,” Hassan told the students, parents and educators who gathered in the library.

Hassan said it’s important to be respectful even when someone has a difference of opinion.

She also read a letter of apology from House Speaker Shawn Jasper, who wrote that comments from some representatives were “unnecessary and crossed the line of decorum that I expect from our members.”

Jasper encouraged the students to remain involved in the political process.

HB 373's prime sponsor, State Rep. Robert Cushing, D-Hampton, joined the governor and thanked the students for their work on the bill, echoing his comments in the House last week.

“It was not our best day, but I know that you in your own way inspired a lot of conversation. I think the way the students responded after the debate really set an example for the adults, and I think that the day the House debated the red-tailed hawk the adults in the room were really sitting up in the gallery and some of the people who were speaking on the floor just did not have the maturity that I think sets an example,” he said.

Despite the defeat, their bill may not be dead.

State Sen. Jeff Woodburn, D-Dalton, plans to include language from the hawk bill in a Senate bill aimed at naming the bobcat the state’s wildcat.

Nathan Benish, 10, said it was important to forgive the representatives for their comments.

“You’ve got to be nice to other people if they’re treating you in a bad way. I felt, ‘Let’s just move on, it’s OK,’” he said.

Nathan’s mother, Anna, was present when the bill was discussed and was shocked by the comments.

“We weren’t expecting to get grilled so hard,” she said.

For the most part, parents said the comments about Planned Parenthood weren’t something the students fully understood, and they told the children that it was an adult issue.

Fourth-grade teacher Jim Cutting said it was honorable of the governor to visit the school and recognize that the issue was important to the students.

“The tone of her visit was encouragement, perseverance, keep your head up, keep going, and manage yourself in a respectful way,” he said.

Cutting added that the intent of proposing the bill was to give the students a “meaningful” learning experience.

“I’m very proud of the way they managed themselves. They asked meaningful questions. I’m convinced that some year many, many years from now we’re going to see one of these guys being a senator or being a representative,” he said.

Fourth-grader Daniel Blankenship said the students have received lots of letters from people saying they were proud of them.

“It’s been a lot of emotions. Happy, sad, confused, excited, nervous — a lot of them,” he said.When asked if he would ever like to become a politician, he replied, “Yes, if I have a good suit.”