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Students, community members protest 'divisive concepts' law Sunday in Keene
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After a group of Keene High School students heard about a bill that would prohibit the teaching of “divisive concepts” in school, they decided to take a stand against it.

On Sunday, more than a dozen students and community leaders gathered in Keene’s Central Square to protest House Bill 544, a piece of legislation that has since been rolled into the state’s budget proposal, which was signed into law by Gov. Chris Sununu Friday.

“I heard about this issue from my history teacher about a week ago, and I decided I needed to do something about it,” said Kiera McLaughlin, the Keene High senior who organized the protest.

The legislation, introduced by a trio of House Republicans, bans the propagation of ideas including that the state of New Hampshire or the U.S. is fundamentally racist or sexist, that “meritocracy or traits such as a hard work ethic are racist or sexist” and that anyone should feel guilt or any other type of psychological distress due to their race or sex.

The bill would restrict spreading these “divisive concepts” in public schools and any businesses or organizations that get money from the state.

“This puts guidelines on what are the limits, especially under the auspices of the state apparatus, what are the limits in presuming that someone was born to be an oppressor or someone was born to be oppressed because of their sex,” Rep. Keith Ammon, a Republican from New Boston who introduced the bill, told the Concord Monitor in February. “If that’s the assumption we are going to make as a society, then we are never going to get to unity.”

But the student protesters worry that the law will prevent important conversations from happening in the classroom and that it will infringe on the First Amendment.

“The freedom of speech, it’s like one of the most important amendments, in my opinion, in our constitution, and this completely ignores it,” said Keene High senior Madelyn Goldberg. “And for a party that’s generally all for exactly what the Constitution says, I think it’s ridiculous that they’re just ignoring that.”

Other participants in Sunday’s protest said they’re concerned the law will prevent students from learning important things about both past and current events. Senior Jessica Aug said she couldn’t imagine future students not learning the history she has, so history’s darkest moments don’t repeat themselves.

Kanan Kalke, also a senior, said communities can’t start solving their problems without being able to identify what those problems are. Another senior, Eliza Shepherd, said she didn’t know who would be served by disregarding certain parts of America’s history.

“I don’t really think it benefits anyone to pretend that that stuff didn’t happen,” she said. “I think it’s important to talk about so that we can move forward.”

There were several speakers during Sunday’s event, including Tom White, coordinator of educational outreach for the Cohen Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Keene State College. White said the law could prevent schools from talking about things like slavery or misogyny, and the language found in the divisive concepts legislation should be raising red flags.

He said it’s up to the community’s young people to continue speaking out against concepts like this. He encouraged those in attendance to believe in the idea of the American republic as a place to share ideas and the importance of the First Amendment.

“You’re doing exactly what the republic calls you to do,” he told the student protesters, “which is stand up for the ‘other’.”

State Sen. Jay Kahn, who has vocally opposed the bill and voted against the budget last week, also spoke during Sunday’s event. He said that during a hearing on the state budget, HB 544 was one of the top concerns mentioned by members of the public.

He said teachers should be free to engage students in discussions about their nation’s history and how that history has led America to where it is today.

Kahn, D-Keene, also noted that critical race theory — an academic approach to U.S. history using the lens of race and power and the belief that systemic racism is a part of American culture — isn’t part of the curriculum in New Hampshire schools.

He urged the young people who were participating in the protest to stay involved and voice support for any future efforts to repeal the legislation.

“When those repeals come up, use your voice,” he told them.

George Downing, chairman of the Keene Board of Education, which passed a resolution opposing HB 544 last month, called it “straight-up censorship.” At the protest, he said that while the law may not have been written to prevent discussion, it will have the effect of stifling conversation.

He said the law will give teachers pause — particularly when discussing history — and make them question whether what they want to teach their students will get them in trouble with the state. He urged students to continue holding protests and making their voices heard.

Asked whether she planned to do that, McLaughlin said she believes the best way “is to stand up with our voices, do walk-outs, do protests, especially when the school year starts up again.” McLaughlin’s mother, Tina McLaughlin, a Keene High English teacher, was also on hand to voice her opposition to HB 544.

“I really think that it’s important for me and my peers to stand up against this, and the teachers, too,” Kiera McLaughlin said, “because we’re the ones mainly affected by this.”

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Walpole cancer survivor leads local Prouty fundraiser
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Though the wind rippled over the Connecticut River on an overcast and humid Saturday afternoon, it was quiet on the bank near the Chesterfield-Brattleboro bridge.

A canoer appeared in the distance. Then came a stand-up paddleboarder, followed by a kayaker. The boats kept coming, more and more from around the bend, spots of color on an otherwise gray day.

A fleet of almost 40 kayaks, canoes and paddleboards spanned the river, their operators whooping and raising paddles overhead as they passed under the bridge.

The boaters were nearing the end of a 13.5-mile journey from Westmoreland to Brattleboro after raising almost $30,000 for cancer research.

They were participating in The Prouty, an annual fundraiser for the Norris Cotton Cancer Center and family and patient services at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

Somewhere in the middle of that group, Jackie Caserta paddled along in a sky-blue kayak. A quiet leader from the middle of the pack, Caserta was the one responsible for bringing all these people together.

Molly Bolan / Sentinel Staff  

Jackie Caserta of Walpole, a breast cancer survivor and the event’s organizer, paddles the last stretch of river before docking at The Marina Boat Launch in Brattleboro.

Twenty-four hours earlier, the Walpole resident was considering what it would be like to paddle farther than she had ever paddled before. “I don’t know if I can make it,” she admitted in a phone interview Friday. “But I won’t know if don’t try.”

She compared the feeling to a different life-changing experience.

“I didn’t know if I was going to make it through my cancer journey.”

Caserta was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2019. Not long after that, she learned about a group of survivors who had banded together to create a rowing team for that year’s Prouty. Caserta reached out to Carin Reynolds, one of the team’s organizers, and signed herself up to join the following year’s team.

The Prouty began 40 years ago, when four nurses from the Norris Cotton Cancer Center committed to biking 100 miles through the White Mountains in honor of their patient, Audrey Prouty, according to The Prouty website. The fundraiser typically takes place the second weekend of July and brings together walkers, cyclists, golfers and rowers.

Training for 2020’s race began in the winter, and Caserta attended one training — right before the rest of the season was canceled due to the pandemic. The Prouty was held virtually to discourage big gatherings. But Caserta didn’t stay off the water long.

Last summer, Caserta was browsing around a yard sale when she stumbled upon a kayak. She bought it for her daughter, Elaina Badders, who is a field biologist and spends her summers on the water studying loons. But once Caserta realized Badders’ employer provided her with a nice kayak, Caserta began using the yard sale purchase for herself.

She immediately fell in love with paddling the Connecticut River. Although she has lived in Walpole most of her life, Caserta had only been on the river once. But with a new-to-her kayak and some friends and family to join, she found the sport to be healing in more than one way.

“[Paddling was] an important part of my cancer treatment not only physically but mentally,” she said, explaining that the peace and tranquility she found on the river helped her through treatment, which included radiation.

In March, Reynolds reached out to see if Caserta was interested in participating in The Prouty’s 2021 virtual rowing effort. Caserta wanted to be a part of The Prouty, but not on her own.

“I thought, ‘What if I just get a few friends together and did the same thing down here that you normally do up there [in Lebanon]?’”

What began as a plan to paddle with a few close friends and family quickly evolved into something much larger, and in less than three months, Caserta’s Prouty group, nearly 40 strong, has raised just over $29,000 and counting.

Caserta said that in many ways, the long day of paddling was a reflection of her cancer journey. There was the uncertainty of what the end might look like, but it also highlighted the importance of having a strong and supportive network.

The group was composed of other cancer survivors, family, friends and friends of friends.

Marghie Seymour, who has been friends with Caserta for more than 20 years, drove down from Littleton to participate in the event.

“It was a really nice bunch of people — fun, interesting people — and fun to talk to,” she said.

Molly Bolan / Sentinel Staff  

Nearly 40 boaters came together Saturday, collectively raising nearly $30,000.

Stephen Hathcock of Peterborough, who had just joined the fundraiser a few days earlier and raised more than $800, said the journey had been both joyful and tiring.

“It’s a minor, minor thing to paddle 14 miles when people are dealing with cancer,” he said.

After the six-hour trip, Caserta said she’ll likely try to plan a similar event next year although, she jokingly cautioned, she wanted to wait and see how sore she is from this challenge before committing to another.

In the end, she never lost sight of what she was paddling for.

“I consider myself one of the very, very lucky ones. If there’s anything I can do to help someone else avoid this nasty, nasty disease, I’ll do it.”

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Jaffrey motorcyclist dies in Peterborough crash Saturday afternoon
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PETERBOROUGH — A motorcyclist has died after a crash on Route 202 (Hancock Road) in Peterborough Saturday afternoon.

Peterborough police identified the driver as 68-year-old Charles E. Lafreniere of Jaffrey. The motorcycle was the only vehicle involved.

According to an initial investigation, Lafreniere was riding south on Route 202 on a 2003 Harley-Davidson when the motorcycle left the edge of the road and struck a sidewalk curb and stone wall, police said in a news release.

He was pronounced dead at the scene from his injuries by a N.H. assistant deputy medical examiner.

Peterborough Fire Chief Walker said emergency crews were called to the scene shortly before 3:20 p.m., and Route 202 was closed for about two hours.

Peterborough police are still investigating the crash, which occurred in the area of Scott Mitchell Road, and ask anyone with information to call them at 924-8050.

Peterborough Fire & Rescue and the Greenfield and Hancock police assisted at the scene.

Are we there yet? Packed NH highways are back, after pandemic lull

There’s a reason your morning commute may be taking longer these days: Traffic in New Hampshire is bouncing back from the steep declines caused by the pandemic.

Traffic on state highways plummeted by 58 percent in the first two weeks of April 2020, according to data from the New Hampshire Department of Transportation. While the number of cars on the road has fluctuated since then, recent traffic levels are inching closer to those from before the pandemic.

A four-week average from the start of summer shows the number of travelers to New Hampshire highways is just below 2019 levels. There were 2,256,890 vehicles, on average, on the highway during that period this year, compared to 2,484,699 vehicles during the same period in 2019.

If many people decide to work from home permanently, traffic patterns in the Granite State will also change, Bill Lambert, state traffic engineer with the Department of Transportation, noted.

“People have found that they can be productive from other locations, other than a business office,” he said. “So I don’t know if we’ll ever get back to that commuting traffic volume that was pre-pandemic.”

With more sectors of the economy reopening, business is also picking up for truck drivers this year.

The number of commercial trucks on New Hampshire roads dipped by 4.5 percent in 2020, according to a traffic report from the New Hampshire Department of Transportation.

Angel Carmona, a truck driver for a commercial landscaping supply company, says he’s seen more trucks on the road and heard more voices on his CB radio in recent weeks. The economic boost is good news, he said, but it’s pushing drivers to their limits.

“We have too much to do,” he said, sitting in his 18-wheeler at the southbound rest stop on I-93 in Hooksett this week. “I think we need more drivers, more trucks on the road.”

Questions and answers
How to find housing assistance in New Hampshire before the federal eviction ban expires

A federal moratorium on evictions was set to expire at the end of June, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just announced plans to extend that ban through the end of July.

Still, thousands of renters in New Hampshire are waiting to know if they’ll get any help paying their bills through the state’s new emergency rental assistance program.

As of June 18, more than 6,400 people had applied to the fund, with about half of those approved. About $20 million has been distributed.

Advocates, municipal welfare directors and a director of one Community Action Program talked with NHPR about the state’s rental assistance program and what the extension means for people facing eviction in New Hampshire.

Who still qualifies for the CDC moratorium?

The moratorium focuses on tenants who are behind on their rent. If you have incurred significant expenses or suffered financial hardships, directly or indirectly, related to the pandemic, you can fill out a declaration form confirming you qualify for the moratorium and give it to your landlord. But evictions for breach of lease, threatening the health and safety of other tenants, or damage to property are still allowed, according to Elliott Berry, managing attorney and housing project director at New Hampshire Legal Assistance.

What do I need to know when applying for housing assistance?

You have to meet certain income eligibility requirements and demonstrate a direct or indirect financial impact because of the pandemic. Documentation is required, which can include paystubs, W-2s, unemployment benefits, or tax filings among others. You can apply at www.capnh.org or print a PDF application to mail in.

Advocates, welfare offices and Community Action Programs are encouraging people who need rental assistance to apply now, because the CDC moratorium only extends until the end of July.

“If you are behind on your rent, you really need to get a hold of a community action agency and also talk with your landlord and work in partnership,” says Betsey Andrews Parker, CEO of Community Action Partnership (CAP) of Strafford County.

The assistance program covers back rent and future rent, as well as utilities.

Who do I need to notify that I’ve applied for housing assistance?

Advocates and CAP agencies say you should contact your landlord as soon as you have applied for assistance. If you have a pending eviction, Berry with New Hampshire Legal Assistance also recommends contacting the court to request a postponement of your eviction hearing until you get a decision on your application.

How can I track my housing application?

Stay on top of your email and make sure your voicemail is set up and able to accept messages, Parker says, because case workers may reach out for more details on your application. Check your email’s spam folder too, just in case.

Application processing tends to take up to a month, both Ellen Tully, Portsmouth’s welfare administrator and Dave Balian, Dover’s welfare director say.

What if I’ve applied for rental assistance, am still waiting to hear back and have concerns about an eviction?

If you do have a pending application and a pending eviction, Berry says to notify the court system and file to postpone the case (known as a motion to continue). Those forms are available through 603 Legal Aid, which you can find at www.nhlegalaid.org.

Anyone who’s facing eviction while waiting for rental relief should make sure to alert their assigned caseworker at their local Community Action Partnership. If possible, Berry says, make sure to let them know the date of any upcoming eviction hearing.

Balian, from Dover’s welfare office says, if applicants are in a position where they can’t wait, resources are still available in his office.

“We’re not going to let anybody get shut off or, you know, start the eviction process just because they can’t get a response quickly enough due to systemic issues. These things take time,” he says.

Rochester Welfare Director Todd Marsh, who leads the state’s welfare administrators association, also encouraged people to contact their local welfare departments if they need help paying their bills — even if they’re still waiting for other rental assistance.

“I hope people, if needed, take advantage of the extension to reach out to agencies, including [CAP] and local welfare departments sooner than later,” he said. “Requesting and navigating assistance is more effective and successful when owed amounts are lower than higher.”

What if my landlord isn’t cooperating?

If you’re having trouble getting your landlord to cooperate with your application for New Hampshire’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program, Berry said you should be able to receive money from the program directly, which can then be used to pay your bills.

“For people who are not getting cooperation from their landlord, they can and should be asking the CAP to have money paid to them directly,” he said.

Berry said landlords should also be aware that the rental assistance program is a big benefit to them, since it can ensure they receive money they’re owed from their tenants.