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Students Punished for Riding Bikes to School in Michigan

Students Punished for Riding Bikes to School in Michigan
WOODTV.com

The mayor was handing out doughnuts. There was a police escort. But a group of 64 high school seniors who rode their bikes to school in Kenowa Hills, Michigan, Tuesday were sent home as punishment by an angry principal who denounced the ride as a dangerous prank. 24 Hour News 8 in Grand Rapids has been covering the story:

[Principal Katie] Pennington said the ride put students in danger, tied up traffic and prevented staff from getting to school.

One senior recorded the principal on a cell phone as she laid into students for their actions.

"If you and your parents don't have sense enough to know your brains could end up splattered on Three Mile and Kinney, Fruit Ridge, then maybe that's my responsibility," Pennington said. "...Get your butts home. You're not participating in senior walk today."

About 60 seniors got the day off and missed the traditional last walk through the hallways at Kenowa Hills, though students say many more seniors received the one-day suspensions.

Kenowa Hills High School apparently has a tradition of senior pranks that has included vandalism in the past. This year, the students thought they would choose a wholesome alternative and organized the bike parade.

That got them in big trouble.

Parents came out to support the kids at a meeting held later in the day. So many people turned up to express their anger with the principal’s actions that the meeting was moved to the middle school auditorium. Pennington didn’t show.

The sad thing about the story is that kids riding bikes to school is anything to remark on to begin with, and that the principal thinks it’s an inherently dangerous activity that the school needs to regulate. It’s not an uncommon assumption: In 2009, a school in Saratoga Springs, New York, made national headlines when a student and his mother challenged its ban on bicycling. As David Darlington pointed out in his comprehensive recent article about the decline of cycling to school in Bicycling magazine, many schools are now located on busy suburban roads at the edges of town, without cycling or pedestrian infrastructure that kids can use safely. The result has been a dramatic decline in the number of kids who get to school under their own power:

According to [U.S. Department of Transportation] surveys, in 2009 only 13 percent of all children walked or rode to school, whereas in 1969 nearly half (48 percent) did. The remoteness of the new schools is not the only cause: Among students who lived within one mile of school 43 years ago, 88 percent walked or bicycled, while today only 38 percent do.

In the case of Saratoga Springs, even kids who live across the street from the middle school are supposed to arrive by car. It’s considered unsafe to do otherwise.

There are some cities that are actively trying to change things. Boulder, Colorado, which has some of the best biking facilities in the country, is one of several places using Boltage, a system that tracks elementary school kids’ bike trips to school and gives them incentives like different-colored rubber wrist bands for frequent riding. This year saw the first official Bike to School Day in the United States, organized by the National Center for Safe Routes to Schools. Dozens of schools around the country participated. There are independent initiatives, too: In Orlando, Florida, some high schoolers organized their own "bike bus," riding to school together every day and finding safety in numbers. In Tenafly, New Jersey, a kid named Attila Yaman has started an effort he calls TenaBike to get more of his peers using bikes for transportation and to raise driver awareness.

School administrators in Kenowa Hills have been backtracking since it became clear how unpopular the punishments were, and the kids involved won't be penalized further. But it would be great if the outrage in Kenowa Hills didn’t just evaporate. Maybe the town’s attitude about cycling to school in general will change. Maybe parents will have an increased awareness of just how important it is for kids to be able to get around by bike and on foot, and also to be able to act independently.

Maybe even Principal Pennington will rethink her assumptions about biking. A Grand Rapids radio DJ who covered the Kenowa Hills story bought her a bicycle, which he delivered to the meeting yesterday. Now she just needs to get on it and ride.

Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn. All posts »

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